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Brain activity related to processing faces is similar in people with, without autism

ings of under-responsiveness in the 'face area' of the brain in autism could be simply attentional, or related to an inability to willingly direct attention to the pertinent feature of a face, gaze direction in this instance," Dichter said, adding that most such studies did not account for where the participants fixed their gaze during brain scanning.

Because individuals with autism typically choose to look away from faces, the previous studies could not disentangle the effects of a preference to look away from faces from actual brain deficits in the ability to process faces. "We required participants to indicate whether faces were looking left or right, thereby requiring that they look at the picture of the face," Dichter said.

In addition, Belger and Dichter pointed to research that correlated the amount of time autistic people looked at features of a face with activation of the amygdala, the "anxiety center" of the brain.

They propose that the use of behavioral interventions aimed, perhaps, at de-sensitizing autistic individuals to the anxiety triggered by looking at faces may help to improve the quality of social interactions, at least from the perspective of caregivers and others involved with them. "The idea is that maybe behavioral methods can help a child with autism approach facial stimuli without anxiety. This is strictly conjecture, but it is a tantalizing possibility," Dichter said.

Imaging allows researchers to begin looking at underlying mechanisms in brain function, Belger said. "Still, we must be careful in our interpretation of the results. Our findings need to be replicated and the research also broadened to include longitudinal studies," he added


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Contact: L. H. Lang
llang@med.unc.edu
919-843-9687
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
15-Nov-2005


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