Disturbances of Affective Contact: Development of Brain
Mechanisms for Emotion Processing
fMRI and Eye
Neuroscientists have begun to identify brain mechanisms involved in
emotional dysfunction in autism. Research on the behavioral, neural,
and genetic instruments underlying the development of emotion processing
will provide important new insights into the development of the
emotional brain of individuals with autism. Improved understanding of
these mechanisms will enhance the recognition and treatment of the
emotional immaturity that is associated with problematic behavior at all
ages and contributes to poor function in adulthood.
What We Want To
We hope to explain how brain development
may differ for individuals with autism. Our research would like to
understand how the brain is able to process information about emotions
and explore how individuals perceive, experience, and express emotions.
We also are interested in how well people are able to use emotion to
make decisions and social judgments.
How We Do This
There are a couple
ways that we test brains, including written tests, recordings of eye
movement, and functional magnetic imaging (fMRI). The written tests ask
questions that a participant or parent answers using pencil and paper.
The eye-tracking device sits in front of the participant like a computer
monitor and has a camera attached. The camera records the eye so that we
can see where a participant is looking when we show pictures.
fMRI is a noninvasive and safe procedure that allows us to take pictures
of the brain while the participant is thinking, looking at pictures and
movies, and reading sentences. To help feel comfortable with the scan,
we will practice lying still and listening to the noises in a simulation
(practice) scanner. In the actual scanner, our participants come for
two separate scans which last 60 minutes for children and 90 minutes for
studies of people without autism have revealed which areas of the brain
use facial expressions, motion, body language, and eye gaze to help them
understand the actions and goals of other people. Through the fMRI
research, we have found that high-functioning people with autism have
difficulty noticing changes in emotions and the difference between human
and mechanical motion. When shown photos of human faces, people with
autism spent less time looking at parts of the face that give social
information (i.e. eyes, nose, and mouth). Our continuing research will
help to uncover how emotion is processed as a means to develop
techniques for helping individuals with autism cope with regulating and
communicating their own emotions.