The Role of the Amygdala in Atypical Gaze on Emotional Faces in Autism Spectrum Disorders
Dorit Kliemann, Isabel Dziobek, Alexander Hatri, Jurgen Baudewig, and Hauke R. Heekeren
J. Neurosci. 2012;32 9469-9476
Reduced focus toward the eyes is a characteristic of atypical gaze on emotional faces in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Along with the atypical gaze, aberrant amygdala activity during face processing compared with neurotypically developed (NT) participants has been repeatedly reported in ASD. It remains unclear whether the previously reported dysfunctional amygdalar response patterns in ASD support an active avoidance of direct eye contact or rather a lack of social attention. Using a recently introduced emotion classification task, we investigated eye movements and changes in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signal in the amygdala with a 3T MRI scanner in 16 autistic and 17 control adult human participants. By modulating the initial fixation position on faces, we investigated changes triggered by the eyes compared with the mouth. Between-group interaction effects revealed different patterns of gaze and amygdalar BOLD changes in ASD and NT: Individuals with ASD gazed more often away from than toward the eyes, compared with the NT group, which showed the reversed tendency. An interaction contrast of group and initial fixation position further yielded a significant cluster of amygdala activity. Extracted parameter estimates showed greater response to eyes fixation in ASD, whereas the NT group showed an increase for mouth fixation.
The differing patterns of amygdala activity in combination with differing patterns of gaze behavior between groups triggered by direct eye contact and mouth fixation, suggest a dysfunctional profile of the amygdala in ASD involving an interplay of both eye-avoidance processing and reduced orientation.