Individuals with autism may have trouble interpreting social cues or may be unable to understand the meaning of eye contact. They may also find it overwhelming or difficult to make eye contact, which may result in the avoidance of eye contact altogether.
ASD patients often have limited eye contact with others, which is a common feature. Due to the difficulty of imagining two people's brains simultaneously, scientists have previously been unable to study the neurological basis of real social interaction with eye contact in ASD.
Researchers at Yale University have now developed a technology that allows them to observe the brains of two individuals in both live and natural situations. They have identified specific brain regions in the dorsal parietal region that are linked with the social symptoms of ASD. This study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that these neural responses to live face and eye contact may provide a clinical basis for diagnosis and assessment of autism.
Joy Hirsch, Elizabeth Mears, and the House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, Comparative Medicine, and of Neuroscience at Yale, the co-author of the research, said their brains are keen to know more about other people.
With functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a non-invasive optical neuroimaging technique, the Yale group, led by Hirsch and James McPartland, the Harris Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, studied brain activity during brief social interactions between two pairs of adults — each one including a typical participant and one with ASD. Both participants were fitted with caps that captured light signals as well as information about brain activity during face gaze and eye-to-eye contact.
Participants with ASD displayed significantly reduced activity in a brain region called the dorsal parietal cortex during eye contact, although this activity was absent during gaze at a video face.
"We now have a greater understanding of autism's neurobiology and social differences, as well as the neural mechanisms that underlie typical social interactions," Hirsch said.
Joy Hirsch, Xian Zhang, J. Adam Noah, Swethasri Dravida, Mark Tiede, Julie M. Wolf, and James C. McPartland, PLOS ONE, 9 November 2022. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0265798