Levels of Emotional Awareness and Autism: An fMRI Study

Soc Neurosci. 2008;3(2):97-112. doi: 10.1080/17470910701577020.


Autism is associated with an inability to identify and distinguish one's own feelings. We assessed this inability using alexithymia and empathy questionnaires, and used fMRI to investigate brain activity while introspecting on emotion. Individuals with high functioning autism/Asperger syndrome (HFA/AS) were compared with matched controls. Participants rated stimuli from the International Affective Picture System twice, once according to the degree of un/pleasantness that the pictures induced, and once according to their color balance. The groups differed significantly on both alexithymia and empathy questionnaires. Alexithymia and lack of empathy were correlated, indicating a link between understanding one's own and others' emotions. For both groups a strong relationship between questionnaire scores and brain activity was found in the anterior insula (AI), when participants were required to assess their feelings to unpleasant pictures. Regardless of self-reported degree of emotional awareness, individuals with HFA/AS differed from controls when required to introspect on their feelings by showing reduced activation in self-reflection/mentalizing regions. Thus, we conclude that difficulties in emotional awareness are related to hypoactivity in AI in both individuals with HFA/AS and controls, and that the particular difficulties in emotional awareness in individuals with HFA/AS are not related to their impairments in self-reflection/mentalizing.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology