Background: The FMR1 premutation affects 1:291 women and is associated with a range of cognitive, affective, and physical health complications, including deficits in pragmatic language (i.e., social language). This study investigated attention to eye gaze as a fundamental social-cognitive skill that may be impaired in the FMR1 premutation and could underlie pragmatic deficits. Given the high prevalence of the FMR1 premutation, efforts to define its phenotype and mechanistic underpinnings have significant public health implications.
Methods: Thirty-five women with the FMR1 premutation and 20 control women completed an eye-tracking paradigm that recorded time spent dwelling within the eye region in response to a face displaying either direct or averted gaze. Pragmatic language ability was coded from a conversational sample using the Pragmatic Rating Scale.
Results: Women with the FMR1 premutation failed to show attentional preference to direct gaze and spent more time dwelling on the averted eyes relative to controls. While dwelling on the eyes was associated with better pragmatic language performance in controls, these variables were unrelated in the women with the FMR1 premutation.
Conclusions: Altered sensitivity to social gaze, characterized by increased salience of averted gaze, was observed among women with the FMR1 premutation. Furthermore, women with the FMR1 premutation were unable to capitalize on information conveyed through the eyes to enhance social-communicative engagement, which differed from patterns seen in controls. These findings contribute to the growing characterization of social and communication phenotypes associated with the FMR1 premutation.
Keywords: Direct gaze; Eye contact; Fragile X carriers; Social cognition; Social communication.