Neural correlates of eye contact and social function in autism spectrum disorder

PLoS One. 2022 Nov 9;17(11):e0265798. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0265798. eCollection 2022.


Reluctance to make eye contact during natural interactions is a central diagnostic criterion for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the underlying neural correlates for eye contacts in ASD are unknown, and diagnostic biomarkers are active areas of investigation. Here, neuroimaging, eye-tracking, and pupillometry data were acquired simultaneously using two-person functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) during live "in-person" eye-to-eye contact and eye-gaze at a video face for typically-developed (TD) and participants with ASD to identify the neural correlates of live eye-to-eye contact in both groups. Comparisons between ASD and TD showed decreased right dorsal-parietal activity and increased right ventral temporal-parietal activity for ASD during live eye-to-eye contact (p≤0.05, FDR-corrected) and reduced cross-brain coherence consistent with atypical neural systems for live eye contact. Hypoactivity of right dorsal-parietal regions during eye contact in ASD was further associated with gold standard measures of social performance by the correlation of neural responses and individual measures of: ADOS-2, Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, 2nd Edition (r = -0.76, -0.92 and -0.77); and SRS-2, Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition (r = -0.58). The findings indicate that as categorized social ability decreases, neural responses to real eye-contact in the right dorsal parietal region also decrease consistent with a neural correlate for social characteristics in ASD.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Parietal Lobe

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.s4mw6m994