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Brain. 2000 Nov;123 ( Pt 11):2203-12.

The functional neuroanatomy of social behaviour: changes in cerebral blood flow when people with autistic disorder process facial expressions.

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  • 1Departments of Psychological Medicine and Neuroimaging, Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, Department of Psychology, St George's Hospital Medical School, London, United Kingdom.


Although high-functioning individuals with autistic disorder (i.e. autism and Asperger syndrome) are of normal intelligence, they have life-long abnormalities in social communication and emotional behaviour. However, the biological basis of social difficulties in autism is poorly understood. Facial expressions help shape behaviour, and we investigated if high-functioning people with autistic disorder show neurobiological differences from controls when processing emotional facial expressions. We used functional MRI to investigate brain activity in nine adults with autistic disorder (mean age +/- standard deviation 37 +/- 7 years; IQ 102 +/- 15) and nine controls (27 +/- 7 years; IQ 116 +/- 10) when explicitly (consciously) and implicitly (unconsciously) processing emotional facial expressions. Subjects with autistic disorder differed significantly from controls in the activity of cerebellar, mesolimbic and temporal lobe cortical regions of the brain when processing facial expressions. Notably, they did not activate a cortical 'face area' when explicitly appraising expressions, or the left amygdala region and left cerebellum when implicitly processing emotional facial expressions. High-functioning people with autistic disorder have biological differences from controls when consciously and unconsciously processing facial emotions, and these differences are most likely to be neurodevelopmental in origin. This may account for some of the abnormalities in social behaviour associated with autism.

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