Project II:  Disturbances of Affective Contact: Development of Brain Mechanisms for Emotion Processing

fMRI and Eye Tracking Study

Background Information


Neuroscientists have begun to identify brain mechanisms involved in emotional dysfunction in autism. Research on the behavioral, neural, and genetic instruments underlying the development of emotion processing will provide important new insights into the development of the emotional brain of individuals with autism. Improved understanding of these mechanisms will enhance the recognition and treatment of the emotional immaturity that is associated with problematic behavior at all ages and contributes to poor function in adulthood.

What We Want To Learn

We hope to explain how brain development may differ for individuals with autism. Our research would like to understand how the brain is able to process information about emotions and explore how individuals perceive, experience, and express emotions. We also are interested in how well people are able to use emotion to make decisions and social judgments.

How We Do This

There are a couple ways that we test brains, including written tests, recordings of eye movement, and functional magnetic imaging (fMRI). The written tests ask questions that a participant or parent answers using pencil and paper. The eye-tracking device sits in front of the participant like a computer monitor and has a camera attached. The camera records the eye so that we can see where a participant is looking when we show pictures.

The fMRI is a noninvasive and safe procedure that allows us to take pictures of the brain while the participant is thinking, looking at pictures and movies, and reading sentences. To help feel comfortable with the scan, we will practice lying still and listening to the noises in a simulation (practice) scanner. In the actual scanner, our participants come for two separate scans which last 60 minutes for children and 90 minutes for adults.

Preliminary Findings

Our initial studies of people without autism have revealed which areas of the brain use facial expressions, motion, body language, and eye gaze to help them understand the actions and goals of other people. Through the fMRI research, we have found that high-functioning people with autism have difficulty noticing changes in emotions and the difference between human and mechanical motion. When shown photos of human f
s, people with autism spent less time looking at parts of the f
that give social information (i.e. eyes, nose, and mouth). Our continuing research will help to uncover how emotion is processed as a means to develop techniques for helping individuals with autism cope with regulating and communicating their own emotions

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