BACKGROUND - Recognition of individual faces is an integral part of both interpersonal interactions and successful functioning within a social group. Therefore, it is of considerable interest that individuals with autism and related conditions have selective deficits in face recognition (sparing nonface object recognition).
METHOD - We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study face and subordinate-level object perception in 14 high-functioning individuals with autism or Asperger syndrome (the autism group), in comparison with 2 groups of matched normal controls (normal control group ] [NC1] and normal control group 2 [NC2]) (n = 14 for each). Regions of interest (ROIs) were defined in NC1 and then applied in comparisons between NC2 and the autism group. Regions of interest were also defined in NC2 and then applied to comparisons between NC1 and the autism group as a replication study.
RESULTS - In the first set of comparisons, we found significant task x group interactions for the size of activation in the right fusiform gyrus (FG) and right inferior temporal gyri (ITG). Post hoc analyses showed that during face (but not object) discrimination, the autism group had significantly greater activation than controls in the right ITG and less activation of the right FG. The replication study showed again that the autism group used the ITG significantly more for processing faces than the control groups, but for these analyses, the effect was now on the left side. Greater ITG activation was the pattern found in both control groups during object processing.
CONCLUSIONS - Individuals with autism spectrum disorders demonstrate a pattern of brain activity during face discrimination that is consistent with feature-based strategies that are more typical of nonface object perception.