Testing the neural mechanisms of face processing in individuals with Autism: An MEG study

Autism is one of the most common neurological disorder affecting children, boys more commonly than girls, and usually appears in the first three years of life. It is thought that this disorder changes the way the brain processes information, causing cognitive impairments, deficits in communication and social understanding, and unusual behaviours. As a result, individuals with autism have difficulty paying attention to, and making sense of, social situations. Faces communicate a lot of social and emotional information, and are important to everyday interactions. As children develop, they typically orient to others’ faces from birth, becoming experts at recognizing faces. Conversely, children with autism are impaired at recognizing faces and facial expressions. Jennifer Barrie is using magnetoencephalography (MEG) — a non-invasive type of brain imaging that measures magnetic energy in the brain during cognition — to determine how neural processing differs in people with autism from those without the disorder. Barrie is examining when and where brain activation occurs when both groups look at faces. She anticipates that people with autism see only elements of faces, while others see the entire face, making faces easier to recognize. Using MEG, Barrie will assess whether these developmental differences can be changed with training. If so, these findings could shape future training programs that would enable people with autism to learn how to better perceive faces, improving their social and emotional functioning and quality of life.