Study Puts a New Face on Autism

Brain center for processing facial information reacts similarly in autistics, non-autistics

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FRIDAY, Nov. 18, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- When people with autism look at a face, the brain area that responds to that information is activated in a way that's very similar to the brain activity of people without autism, new research shows.

This finding comes as a surprise, since it's widely recognized that people with autism tend to avoid looking directly at other people's faces. The result also contradicts previous research that found that the face-processing area in the back of the brain is under-responsive in people with autism.

This new finding suggests that specific behavioral interventions may help improve the social interaction ability of people with autism, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

In their study, the UNC team compared functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of people with autism and people without autism as they performed an hour-long visual task involving images of faces.

"The brain regions 'specialized' for face processing, the fusiform gyrus, activated almost identically in our autistic study participants and the control group of individuals without autism. This is one very simple and clear-cut finding," researcher Dr. Aysenil Belger, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology, said in a prepared statement.

The researchers suggest that behavioral therapy designed to desensitize people with autism to the anxiety they experience when they look at faces may help improve their social interaction abilities.

The study was presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about autism.

SOURCE: UNC School of Medicine, news release, Nov. 14, 2005


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