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Cognition and behavior: Response to emotions linked to autism

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Jessica Wright
16 August 2011

Facial attraction: A gene variant that ups activity in the brain's reward center also increases how long people look at happy faces.

The brains of teenagers with autism and their unaffected siblings respond similarly to both happy and neutral faces, whereas those of controls seem to prefer happy ones, according to a study published 12 July in Translational Psychiatry1.

These differences could be mediated by the cannabinoid receptor 1, or CNR1, which is involved in reward processing. Genetic variants in this gene predict how long typically developing individuals look at happy faces, reports another study published 29 June in Molecular Autism2.

Together, the two papers suggest that an individual's response to happy faces is an endophenotype — a feature present in both people with the disorder and unaffected family members that indicates an underlying genetic risk factor for autism.

Several studies have shown that individuals with autism have problems identifying faces and recognizing emotions. Studies have linked these differences with altered activity in what researchers call the 'social brain' network, which includes the superior temporal sulcus and the fusiform face area.

In the first study, 40 teenagers with autism, 40 healthy siblings and 40 typically developing controls looked at a series of images of happy, neutral or fearful faces, as well as blank images, while researchers monitored their social brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

Controls show a heightened brain response to happy faces compared with neutral ones, but this response is dampened in teenagers with autism, the study found. Unaffected siblings have a response halfway between the two groups.

By contrast, all three groups show a similar rise in brain activity when looking at neutral faces compared with blank images, suggesting that the effect does not result from a general lack of interest in faces. Teenagers with autism also respond similarly to fearful and neutral faces.

In the second study, researchers used gaze-tracking software to measure how long 30 typical individuals look at faces with happy, sad, angry, disgusted or fearful expressions.

A previous study by the same group showed that individuals with certain genetic variants in CNR1 have more activity in the striatum — a brain region that mediates rewards — when looking at happy faces compared with those who carry other variants3.

Individuals with the CNR1 variants associated with the most activity in the striatum look at happy faces longer than at those with other expressions, the new study found.

References:

  1. Spencer M.D. et al Trans. Psychiatry 1, e19 (2011) Abstract

  2. Chakrabarti B. and S. Baron-Cohen Mol. Autism Epub ahead of print (2011) PubMed

  3. Chakrabarti B. et al. Eur. J. Neurosci. 23, 1944-1948 (2011) PubMed

Comments

Name: J.H
16 August 2011 - 10:38PM

Maybe, it is, what it is.

Teenagers with Autism......

Facial Expression Meaning of Facial Expression

A sadness facial expression: consistent associations

A neutral facial expression: consistent associations

A fearful facial expression: consistent associations

A happy facial expression: inconsistent associations

I can argue that out of these three facial expressions a happy face would be the most ambiguous for someone on the spectrum to interpret. A smile can be accompanied by sarcasm, a cruel joke, genuine happiness, etc, Neutrality, sadness, and fearfulness are more singular and concrete in their interpretations. How a Teenager's brain responses to different facial expression(s) could be the result of learned behavior as a typical or atypical developing child.

* Siblings interacting with a brother or sister with autism could pick up certain social behaviors as well.

* Test these Teenagers with photos of family members/intimate associates with different facial expressions

Environmental(Social) and Genetic

Just Theory. So, it's called the social brain:. this is fascinating.

signing off for awhile

Name: J.H
16 August 2011 - 10:41PM

correction: should read out of these four facial expressions

Name: J.H
16 August 2011 - 11:06PM

Maybe, it is, what it is.

Teenagers with Autism......

Facial Expression Meaning of Facial Expression

A sad facial expression: consistent associations

A neutral facial expression: consistent associations

A fearful facial expression: consistent associations

A happy facial expression: inconsistent associations

I can argue that out of these four facial expressions a happy face would be the most ambiguous for someone on the spectrum to interpret. A smile can be accompanied by sarcasm, a cruel joke, genuine happiness, etc, Neutrality, sadness, and fearfulness are more singular and concrete in their interpretations. How a Teenager's brain responds to different facial expression(s) could be the result of learned behavior as a typical or atypical developing child.

* Siblings interacting with a brother or sister with autism could pick up certain social behaviors as well.

* Test these Teenagers with photos of family members/intimate associates with different facial expressions

Environmental(Social) and Genetic

Just Theory. So, it's called the social brain:. this is fascinating.

signing off for awhile

*corrected post

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