Atypical neural encoding of faces in individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Cereb Cortex. 2024 May 2;34(13):172-186. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhae060.


Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience pervasive difficulties in processing social information from faces. However, the behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying social trait judgments of faces in ASD remain largely unclear. Here, we comprehensively addressed this question by employing functional neuroimaging and parametrically generated faces that vary in facial trustworthiness and dominance. Behaviorally, participants with ASD exhibited reduced specificity but increased inter-rater variability in social trait judgments. Neurally, participants with ASD showed hypo-activation across broad face-processing areas. Multivariate analysis based on trial-by-trial face responses could discriminate participant groups in the majority of the face-processing areas. Encoding social traits in ASD engaged vastly different face-processing areas compared to controls, and encoding different social traits engaged different brain areas. Interestingly, the idiosyncratic brain areas encoding social traits in ASD were still flexible and context-dependent, similar to neurotypicals. Additionally, participants with ASD also showed an altered encoding of facial saliency features in the eyes and mouth. Together, our results provide a comprehensive understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying social trait judgments in ASD.

Keywords: amygdala; autism spectrum disorder; dominance; face; facial saliency feature; fusiform face area; insula; social trait; superior temporal sulcus; trustworthiness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / diagnostic imaging
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / physiopathology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / psychology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain* / physiopathology
  • Facial Recognition* / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Social Perception*
  • Young Adult