Infant Neural Sensitivity to Dynamic Eye Gaze Is Associated with Later Emerging Autism

Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College, University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK.
Current biology: CB (Impact Factor: 9.57). 02/2012; 22(4):338-42. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.12.056
Source: PubMed


Autism spectrum disorders (henceforth autism) are diagnosed in around 1% of the population [1]. Familial liability confers risk for a broad spectrum of difficulties including the broader autism phenotype (BAP) [2, 3]. There are currently no reliable predictors of autism in infancy, but characteristic behaviors emerge during the second year, enabling diagnosis after this age [4, 5]. Because indicators of brain functioning may be sensitive predictors, and atypical eye contact is characteristic of the syndrome [6-9] and the BAP [10, 11], we examined whether neural sensitivity to eye gaze during infancy is associated with later autism outcomes [12, 13]. We undertook a prospective longitudinal study of infants with and without familial risk for autism. At 6-10 months, we recorded infants' event-related potentials (ERPs) in response to viewing faces with eye gaze directed toward versus away from the infant [14]. Longitudinal analyses showed that characteristics of ERP components evoked in response to dynamic eye gaze shifts during infancy were associated with autism diagnosed at 36 months. ERP responses to eye gaze may help characterize developmental processes that lead to later emerging autism. Findings also elucidate the mechanisms driving the development of the social brain in infancy.

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    • "First, children at risk for ASD may show selective impairments in processing information from the eyes. Interpreted from this perspective, our results are in line with those of Elsabbagh et al.[22]who found altered ERP's in response to gaze cues in infants who later fulfilled diagnostic criteria for an ASD, as well as with the findings that individuals with ASD look less at eyes252627and have difficulties interpreting eye information[23,24]. Another possibility is that children at risk for ASD are less sensitive to directional cues in general and need more cues in order to respond typically. "
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    ABSTRACT: The ability to follow gaze is an important prerequisite for joint attention, which is often compromised in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The direction of both the head and eyes provides cues to other people’s attention direction, but previous studies have not separated these factors and their relation to ASD susceptibility. Development of gaze following typically occurs before ASD diagnosis is possible, and studies of high-risk populations are therefore important. Eye tracking was used to assess gaze following during interaction in a group of 10-month-old infants at high familial risk for ASD (high-risk group) as well as a group of infants with no family history of ASD (low-risk group). The infants watched an experimenter gaze at objects in the periphery. Performance was compared across two conditions: one in which the experimenter moved both the eyes and head toward the objects (Eyes and Head condition) and one that involved movement of the eyes only (Eyes Only condition). A group by condition interaction effect was found. Specifically, whereas gaze following accuracy was comparable across the two conditions in the low-risk group, infants in the high-risk group were more likely to follow gaze in the Eyes and Head condition than in the Eyes Only condition. In an ecologically valid social situation, responses to basic non-verbal orienting cues were found to be altered in infants at risk for ASD. The results indicate that infants at risk for ASD may rely disproportionally on information from the head when following gaze and point to the importance of separating information from the eyes and the head when studying social perception in ASD.
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    • "With the first overt behavioural symptoms appearing only toward the end of the first year of life, affected infants will typically not be routinely diagnosed before their third birthday (E.J.H. Jones et al., 2014). However, results from infant sibling studies suggest that the underlying differences in brain function that later on give rise to the behavioural symptoms may already be evident during the first year of life (Elsabbagh et al., 2012; Lloyd-Fox et al., 2013). Despite this, to our knowledge, no studies have directly investigated brain response to human vocal sounds in infants at high risk of ASD. "
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    • "In contrast to typically developing children, those who develop ASD show slower face processing [90], lack of differentiation of gaze direction toward vs away [91], decreased attention to social scenes [92] [93], and no quickened response to an object cued by eye gaze [94], signifying a defect in joint attention. We suggest that the non-social AV brain specialization alters the response to social experience, consistent with the finding that children with ASD are effective processors of nonhuman AV stimuli, but they exhibit lower processing scores than typical when faces and voices are involved [95]. "
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