Researchers might have gained insight into why people with autism have difficulty remembering faces and distinguishing facial emotion. In an ongoing study, Dr. Nim Tottenham, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, is examining how normal and autistic brains behave when viewing a face.
While their brain is scanned in an fMRI machine, subjects look at a computer screen displaying different faces with various facial expressions. Each subject is motivated by a visual cue -- a star symbol -- to draw his or her attention to either the eyes or mouth on each face.
Facial recognition areas in the brain are recorded by the fMRI, and eye movements are tracked with a camera. Early data in both healthy and autistic subjects show that only when a subject looks at the eyes does the facial recognition area of the brain become active.
The research team hopes that early intervention with this behavioral technique in autistic children might help to train the brain to focus on others' eyes in order to improve facial recognition and facial emotion early in life.