Abnormal activation of the social brain during face perception in autism

Hum Brain Mapp. 2007 May;28(5):441-9. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20283.


ASD involves a fundamental impairment in processing social-communicative information from faces. Several recent studies have challenged earlier findings that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have no activation of the fusiform gyrus (fusiform face area, FFA) when viewing faces. In this study, we examined activation to faces in the broader network of face-processing modules that comprise what is known as the social brain. Using 3T functional resonance imaging, we measured BOLD signal changes in 10 ASD subjects and 7 healthy controls passively viewing nonemotional faces. We replicated our original findings of significant activation of face identity-processing areas (FFA and inferior occipital gyrus, IOG) in ASD. However, in addition, we identified hypoactivation in a more widely distributed network of brain areas involved in face processing [including the right amygdala, inferior frontal cortex (IFC), superior temporal sulcus (STS), and face-related somatosensory and premotor cortex]. In ASD, we found functional correlations between a subgroup of areas in the social brain that belong to the mirror neuron system (IFC, STS) and other face-processing areas. The severity of the social symptoms measured by the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule was correlated with the right IFC cortical thickness and with functional activation in that area. When viewing faces, adults with ASD show atypical patterns of activation in regions forming the broader face-processing network and social brain, outside the core FFA and IOG regions. These patterns suggest that areas belonging to the mirror neuron system are involved in the face-processing disturbances in ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Visual Pathways / blood supply
  • Visual Pathways / physiopathology


  • Oxygen