Clues are emerging about the brain science behind the social difficulties of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) thanks to a group of investigators at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
For people with ASD, something as simple as establishing eye contact with someone they are talking to can cause discomfort, with some patients describing it as a burning sensation, a hospital release said. The reaction was long thought to have a sociological or psychological cause, but the latest imaging tests have shown the brain structures that help us recognize faces can become overloaded in those with ASD.
The study’s author, Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani, said it’s not just a case of shyness that keeps some people from making eye contact.
“The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern,” Hadjikhani, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, said in the release. “Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.”
The familiar technology of magnetic resonance imagery – the same technology used to diagnose a variety of illnesses – was used to gauge the brain’s reaction to viewing faces, but with a twist: the functional MRIs used in the Massachusetts General study track blood flow throughout a subject’s brain, rather than just capturing static images.
The findings may alter a generation of psychological practice for dealing with ASD, which has traditionally tried to desensitize children who resist making eye contact by forcing them to do so, Hadjikhani said.
“An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the social brain,” Hadjikhani said in the release.
The team is planning follow-up research to use magnetoencephalography to grasp additional insight into autism.