Visual attention is a general information gathering mechanism that is central to cognitive, emotional, and perceptual development. Visual scenes are cluttered with more information than can be managed at once. The role of visual attention is to organize eye gaze patterns in such scenes, thereby supporting the first step in information gathering, perception, and learning. Although the timing of the development of visual attention is understood, the explanatory variables that underlie its development are not well known. This project aims to characterize the variables that contribute to typical and atypical visual attention. Previous findings related to visual attention and computational vision lead to the hypothesis that integrity of visual processing is fundamental to the development of visual attention. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their at-risk infant siblings show both atypical visual and attentional abilities. We hypothesize that differences in visual attention in ASD are a result of atypical visual processing. This proposal will test this hypothesis in infancy when these skills emerge, and then from childhood through adulthood as these skills continue to refine. We will test our predictions using standard attention and visual function tasks, in concert with behavioral eye-tracking and neuroimaging methods. This work has the potential to provide a foundation for understanding what may be a pivotal and foundational disruption in behavioral and neural circuitry development underlying ASD.

Public Health Relevance

Our discoveries have the potential to reveal very early predictors of VA disruption. Our tasks could function as biomarkers for ASD risk beginning as early as three months after birth. If our hypothesis were verified, we would devise an evidence-based intervention strategy aimed at normalizing visual function in very young infants at-risk for ASD. This type of intervention would possibly prevent the atypical development of visual attention and normalize gaze patterns and information gathering in this population,

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Exploratory Grants (P20)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZGM1-TWD-B)
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Brown University
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