Brain scans shed light on reluctance to make eye contact among people with autism

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Brain scans show that folks with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had significantly less activity in their dorsal parietal cortex during eye-to-eye contact, compared to people without ASD, researchers report. Photo by SofieZborilova/Pixabay

A common characteristic of autism is a reluctance to make eye contact with others, and researchers now think they know where in the brain this comes from.

Brain scans show that folks with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had significantly less activity in their dorsal parietal cortex during eye-to-eye contact, compared to people without ASD, researchers report.

This brain region has been associated with guiding a person’s visual evaluation of something and influencing their reaction to that visual stimulus.

The dorsal parietal cortex also has been linked with the social symptoms of autism. Armed with these study results, researchers can use this brain region to potentially help diagnose autism and test treatments.

“We now not only have a better understanding of the neurobiology of autism and social differences, but also of the underlying neural mechanisms that drive typical social connections,” co-researcher Joy Hirsch said in a Yale University School of Medicine news release. She is a professor of psychiatry, comparative medicine and neuroscience at the university.

For the study, Hirsch and her colleagues analyzed brain activity during brief social interactions of 17 healthy adults with autism paired with 19 adults without autism.

Both sets of participants were fitted with caps that emitted light into the brain and recorded changes in light signals prompted by brain activity.

The more severe a person’s overall symptoms of autism were, the less activity was seen in the dorsal parietal cortex when they tried to maintain eye contact with their study partner, researchers found.

“Our brains are hungry for information about other people, and we need to understand how these social mechanisms operate in the context of a real and interactive world in both typically developed individuals as well as individuals with ASD,” Hirsch said.

The new study was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about autism symptoms.

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