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Neurocognitive and electrophysiological evidence of altered face processing in parents of children with autism: Implications for a model of abnormal development of social brain circuitry in autism

  • GERALDINE DAWSON (a1) (a2), SARA JANE WEBB (a1) (a2), ELLEN WIJSMAN (a1) (a2), GERARD SCHELLENBERG (a1) (a3), ANNETTE ESTES (a1) (a2), JEFFREY MUNSON (a1) and SUSAN FAJA (a1) (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 September 2005

Neuroimaging and behavioral studies have shown that children and adults with autism have impaired face recognition. Individuals with autism also exhibit atypical event-related brain potentials to faces, characterized by a failure to show a negative component (N170) latency advantage to face compared to nonface stimuli and a bilateral, rather than right lateralized, pattern of N170 distribution. In this report, performance by 143 parents of children with autism on standardized verbal, visual–spatial, and face recognition tasks was examined. It was found that parents of children with autism exhibited a significant decrement in face recognition ability relative to their verbal and visual spatial abilities. Event-related brain potentials to face and nonface stimuli were examined in 21 parents of children with autism and 21 control adults. Parents of children with autism showed an atypical event-related potential response to faces, which mirrored the pattern shown by children and adults with autism. These results raise the possibility that face processing might be a functional trait marker of genetic susceptibility to autism. Discussion focuses on hypotheses regarding the neurodevelopmental and genetic basis of altered face processing in autism. A general model of the normal emergence of social brain circuitry in the first year of life is proposed, followed by a discussion of how the trajectory of normal development of social brain circuitry, including cortical specialization for face processing, is altered in individuals with autism. The hypothesis that genetic-mediated dysfunction of the dopamine reward system, especially its functioning in social contexts, might account for altered face processing in individuals with autism and their relatives is discussed.The writing of this paper and the studies reported herein were funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD Grant U19HD34565), which is part of the NICHD Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism, and a center grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH Grant U54MH066399), which is part of the NIH STAART Centers Program.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Geraldine Dawson, University of Washington Autism Center, Box 357920, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.
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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
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