Happy and Angry Faces Elicit Atypical Neural Activation in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Rachel C. Leung
    Address correspondence to Rachel C. Leung, Ph.D., Diagnostic Imaging, Hospital for Sick Children, 555 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5G 1X8, Canada.
    Department of Diagnostic Imaging, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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  • Elizabeth W. Pang
    Division of Neurology, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Neurosciences and Mental Health Program, Research Institute, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Department of Pediatrics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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  • Jessica A. Brian
    Department of Pediatrics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Autism Research Centre, Bloorview Research Institute, Holland Bloorview Rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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  • Margot J. Taylor
    Department of Diagnostic Imaging, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Neurosciences and Mental Health Program, Research Institute, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Department of Pediatrics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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Published:April 10, 2019DOI:



      Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant impairments in social interactions and communication. The ability to accurately perceive and interpret emotional faces is critical to successful social interactions. However, few studies have investigated the spatiotemporal profile of the neural mechanisms underlying emotional face processing in ASD, particularly in children. The current study fills this important gap.


      Participants were 55 children: 28 children with ASD (mean age = 9.5 ± 1.3 years) and 27 control children (mean age = 8.5 ± 1.3 years). All children completed an implicit emotional face task while magnetoencephalography was recorded. We examined spatiotemporal differences between the groups in neural activation during implicit processing of emotional faces.


      Within-group analyses demonstrated greater right middle temporal (300–375 ms) and superior temporal (300–400 ms) activation to angry faces than to happy faces in control children, while children with ASD showed greater activation from 250 to 500 ms to happy faces than to angry faces across frontal and temporal regions. Between-group analyses demonstrated that children with ASD showed similar patterns of late (425–500 ms) posterior cingulate and thalamic underactivity to both angry and happy faces relative to control children, suggesting general atypical processing of emotional information.


      Atypical posterior cingulate cortex and thalamus recruitment in children with ASD to emotional faces suggests poor modulation of toggling between the default mode network and task-based processing. Increased neural activity to happy faces compared with angry faces in children with ASD suggests reduced salience or immature response to anger, which in turn could contribute to deficits in social cognition in ASD.


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      • Neuromagnetic Measurements of Emotional Face Processing in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder
        Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and NeuroimagingVol. 4Issue 12
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          Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition associated with difficulties with social interaction and communication, along with restricted and repetitive behavior. It affects more than 1% of the population and impacts the way a person perceives and socializes with others. Many behavioral studies have reported deficits in face processing in individuals with ASD. From an early age, children with ASD show less attention to faces and eyes than their typically developing peers. They also have difficulty understanding the emotional expressions of others.
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