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Face processing occurs outside the fusiform 'face area' in autism: evidence from functional MRI.

Pierce K, Müller RA, Ambrose J, Allen G, Courchesne E
Brain : a journal of neurology


Processing the human face is at the focal point of most social interactions, yet this simple perceptual task is difficult for individuals with autism, a population that spends limited amounts of time engaged in face-to-face eye contact or social interactions in general. Thus, the study of face processing in autism is not only important because it may be integral to understanding the social deficits of this disorder, but also, because it provides a unique opportunity to study experiential factors related to the functional specialization of normal face processing. In short, autism may be one of the only disorders where affected individuals spend reduced amounts of time engaged in face processing from birth. Using functional MRI, haemodynamic responses during a face perception task were compared between adults with autism and normal control subjects. Four regions of interest (ROIs), the fusiform gyrus (FG), inferior temporal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus and amygdala were manually traced on non-spatially normalized images and the percentage ROI active was calculated for each subject. Analyses in Talairach space were also performed. Overall results revealed either abnormally weak or no activation in FG in autistic patients, as well as significantly reduced activation in the inferior occipital gyrus, superior temporal sulcus and amygdala. Anatomical abnormalities, in contrast, were present only in the amygdala in autistic patients, whose mean volume was significantly reduced as compared with normals. Reaction time and accuracy measures were not different between groups. Thus, while autistic subjects could perform the face perception task, none of the regions supporting face processing in normals were found to be significantly active in the autistic subjects. Instead, in every autistic patient, faces maximally activated aberrant and individual-specific neural sites (e.g. frontal cortex, primary visual cortex, etc.), which was in contrast to the 100% consistency of maximal activation within the traditional fusiform face area (FFA) for every normal subject. It appears that, as compared with normal individuals, autistic individuals 'see' faces utilizing different neural systems, with each patient doing so via a unique neural circuitry. Such a pattern of individual-specific, scattered activation seen in autistic patients in contrast to the highly consistent FG activation seen in normals, suggests that experiential factors do indeed play a role in the normal development of the FFA.

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