Sensitivity of the autonomic nervous system to visual and auditory affect across social and non-social domains in williams syndrome

Front Psychol. 2012 Sep 14:3:343. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00343. eCollection 2012.


Although individuals with Williams syndrome (WS) typically demonstrate an increased appetitive social drive, their social profile is characterized by dissociations, including socially fearless behavior coupled with anxiousness, and distinct patterns of "peaks and valleys" of ability. The aim of this study was to compare the processing of social and non-social visually and aurally presented affective stimuli, at the levels of behavior and autonomic nervous system (ANS) responsivity, in individuals with WS contrasted with a typically developing (TD) group, with the view of elucidating the highly sociable and emotionally sensitive predisposition noted in WS. Behavioral findings supported previous studies of enhanced competence in processing social over non-social stimuli by individuals with WS; however, the patterns of ANS functioning underlying the behavioral performance revealed a surprising profile previously undocumented in WS. Specifically, increased heart rate (HR) reactivity, and a failure for electrodermal activity to habituate were found in individuals with WS contrasted with the TD group, predominantly in response to visual social affective stimuli. Within the auditory domain, greater arousal linked to variation in heart beat period was observed in relation to music stimuli in individuals with WS. Taken together, the findings suggest that the pattern of ANS response in WS is more complex than previously noted, with increased arousal to face and music stimuli potentially underpinning the heightened behavioral emotionality to such stimuli. The lack of habituation may underlie the increased affiliation and attraction to faces characterizing individuals with WS. Future research directions are suggested.

Keywords: affect; autonomic nervous system; electrodermal activity; facial expression; heart rate; psychophysiology; williams syndrome.