Emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder
Philip, Ruth Clare Margaret
With an estimated prevalence of ~1%, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is relatively common. Whilst accepted as a neurodevelopmental disorder, currently the diagnosis of autism is based on the observation of characteristic behaviour: deficits in language, communication and social skills in addition to unusual or restricted interests. Research in the condition has been approached with psychological and physiological methodology however a full understanding of the underlying neuropathology of autism is still unclear. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has been employed to study face processing in ASD with varied results. The processing of other types of social cues has been far less extensively explored and similarly, whilst there have been some reports of aberrant neural responsiveness to emotion in ASD, this component of social cognition requires further study. In particular, it is unclear whether there is a specific deficit in processing faces in ASD or rather a global deficit in emotion processing which is present across stimulus types, sensory domains and emotions. In this study basic emotion labelling using a range of stimulus types has been investigated within the same ASD cohort. In comparison to a control group, deficits were apparent in the ASD group when processing emotion in face, whole body and voice stimuli. This indicates a global emotion processing deficit in ASD that cannot be fully accounted for by deficits in basic face processing alone. Processing neutral and emotional faces and static whole body images was subsequently investigated using fMRI. When neutral faces, neutral bodies, fearful faces and fearful bodies were contrasted with fixation baseline, both groups broadly recruited the expected network of brain regions. When the emotional condition was contrasted with the neutral condition for each stimulus type significant between groups differences were apparent. The bilateral inferior parietal lobe responded significantly differently in response to facial emotion and the right supplementary motor area and superior temporal sulcus region was differentially activated in response to emotion in body stimuli. Findings reported here suggest that there are wide ranging social deficits in ASD which relate to the processing of a variety of social cues. fMRI evidence suggests that these deficits have a neural basis, in which elements of the social brain, including regions associated with mirror neuron function, activate in an atypical manner in ASD.