Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience profound difficulty in social interactions. Problems maintaining eye contact, or shared gaze, emerge early in life and persist throughout development. The social challenges experienced by people with ASD are most evident in dynamic, interactive contexts~ however, most brain research in ASD has studied neural responses to social information in less realistic contexts, such as passively viewing static faces on a computer monitor. In the curren study, we propose to combine high-speed eye-tracking (ET~ to measure where a person looks on a computer screen) and electroencephalographic recording (EEG~ to measure brain response). Integration of these methods enables simulation of social interactions y animating on-screen faces that respond to the participant's eye gaze. In this way, we study interactions that, as in real life, are controlled by eye contact rather than a keyboard or computer device. We use computer-generated, highly realistic faces that respond to the gaze of participants by "looking back" or making a facial expression. In three experiments, we will examine patterns of visual attention and associated brain response in ASD and typically developing counterparts while viewing (a) static faces, (b) interactive faces that respond to the viewer's gaze with reciprocated or averted eye contact, and (c) interactive faces hat respond to the viewer's gaze with a facial expression, such as a smile. This project will also collect information about social and communicative behavior to examine the relationship between neural response to shared gaze and social function. Preliminary data demonstrate the viability of this innovative approach and reveal a novel EEG marker for reciprocal eye contact that is attenuated in ASD and related to social performance. Our innovative approach will advance understanding of the brain bases of ASD by studying social perception in a naturalistic, interactive context. This research is a critical first step with significant clinial translational benefits, including identifying therapeutic targets, developing biologically-baed predictors of treatment response, creating new treatment approaches, defining subgroups of individuals with ASD, and detecting atypical brain development in ASD before behavioral symptoms become evident.

Public Health Relevance

This project focuses on looking patterns and associated brain response in individuals with ASD during simulated social interactions. By integrating eye-tracking and EEG, the study will investigate a neural marker of sensitivity to reciprocal eye contact in ASD. This potential biomarker holds promise for treatment development and selection, defining subgroups of individuals with ASD, and detecting atypical development in ASD before behavioral symptoms emerge.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Child Psychopathology and Developmental Disabilities Study Section (CPDD)
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Gilotty, Lisa
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Yale University
Schools of Medicine
New Haven
United States
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McPartland, J C; Bernier, R; South, M (2015) Realizing the translational promise of psychophysiological research in ASD. J Autism Dev Disord 45:277-82
Naples, Adam; Nguyen-Phuc, Alyssa; Coffman, Marika et al. (2015) A computer-generated animated face stimulus set for psychophysiological research. Behav Res Methods 47:562-70