Hard to "tune in": neural mechanisms of live face-to-face interaction with high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder

Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Sep 27;6:268. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00268. eCollection 2012.


Persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are known to have difficulty in eye contact (EC). This may make it difficult for their partners during face to face communication with them. To elucidate the neural substrates of live inter-subject interaction of ASD patients and normal subjects, we conducted hyper-scanning functional MRI with 21 subjects with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) paired with typically-developed (normal) subjects, and with 19 pairs of normal subjects as a control. Baseline EC was maintained while subjects performed real-time joint-attention task. The task-related effects were modeled out, and inter-individual correlation analysis was performed on the residual time-course data. ASD-Normal pairs were less accurate at detecting gaze direction than Normal-Normal pairs. Performance was impaired both in ASD subjects and in their normal partners. The left occipital pole (OP) activation by gaze processing was reduced in ASD subjects, suggesting that deterioration of eye-cue detection in ASD is related to impairment of early visual processing of gaze. On the other hand, their normal partners showed greater activity in the bilateral occipital cortex and the right prefrontal area, indicating a compensatory workload. Inter-brain coherence in the right IFG that was observed in the Normal-Normal pairs (Saito et al., 2010) during EC diminished in ASD-Normal pairs. Intra-brain functional connectivity between the right IFG and right superior temporal sulcus (STS) in normal subjects paired with ASD subjects was reduced compared with in Normal-Normal pairs. This functional connectivity was positively correlated with performance of the normal partners on the eye-cue detection. Considering the integrative role of the right STS in gaze processing, inter-subject synchronization during EC may be a prerequisite for eye cue detection by the normal partner.

Keywords: autistic spectrum disorder; functional connectivity; functional magnetic resonance imaging; hyperscanning; inter-subject coherence; joint attention; mutual gaze.