During the first year of this new project we have completed data collection and preliminary analyses on several behavioral and fMRI studies of communication skills, face and object perception, and understanding of social interactions in high-functioning ASD individuals. Preliminary analyses of the behavioral studies show that these individuals have difficulty perceiving specific emotional states from faces. They also have poor memory for faces relative to another object category of similar overall shape and complexity as faces (electric fans). However, contrary to some previous claims, this face-processing deficit was not attributed to an aversion for looking at the eyes relative to other facial features. Rather, the ASD subjects tend to look less at the global shape of the face than do normally developing control subjects. Consistent with these behavioral findings, our brain imaging data suggest that although the face processing network responds normally to the presentation of photographs of faces in ASD, this system is not utilized normally for more complex processing tasks. For example, whereas normally developing individuals engaged the face processing network when performing tasks requiring understanding of social interactions, the ASD subjects do not. Rather these subjects engage this network regardless of whether the task requires understanding of social or mechanical interactions. One interpretation of these findings is that ASD may be characterized by deficient functional neural connectivity within specific nodes of a processing network. Preliminary analysis of our verbal fluency data, as well as evaluation of functional connectivity during the resting state, supports this possibility.

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