Autism – Amygdala/Fusiform
April 4, 2005

A recent study by researchers led by Richard Davidson (well known in affective neuroscience research) at UW-Madison (reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience) suggest that autistic children shy away from eye contact because they perceive even the most familiar face as a threat (this actually is congruent with what some psychoanalysts such as Frances Tusten have noted-the role of separation terror, anxiety of the strange, etc.). Tracking eye movements (to me this seems to relate to the research in schizophrenia on eye smooth pursuit tracking-what some schizophrenia researchers might see as a endophenotype of schizophrenia-which research has also shown to be modifiable) and activity in the amygdala (limbic center mediating response to threat) in autistic children revealed activation of the latter during gaze upon a non-threatening face.

In a previous paper (given at Johns Hopkins), in regard to the concept of eye tracking as an endophenotype of schizophrenia, I noted:

"There exists conflicting evidence for previously held biological markers for an underlying genetic diathesis such as abnormalities in smooth pursuit eye muscle tracking (also observed in bipolar patients, another example of the non-specificity of neuroscience findings in schizophrenia). Researchers demonstrated a functional basis to this deficit in recent-onset schizophrenic patients by showing improvement through attentional training, as Colin Ross pointed out “...a deficit in performance of smooth pursuit eye movement tasks, usually assumed to be a biological marker of the genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, is significantly related to physical and emotional abuse in childhood (Irwin, Green, and Marsh, 1999)” (p. 35).

The autistic children avoided eye contact seemingly because they see familiar faces as endangering (Tusten believed that separation is avoided at all costs because of heightened sensitivity to bodily differentiation).The researchers reported that because these children avert eye contact, the brain's fusiform region, critical for face perception, is less active than it would be normally during face perception. The researchers noted that the fusiform area was normal fundamentally, but demonstrated stunted activity due to over-aroused amygdalas-this creates a tendency to avert eye gaze (here it might be more an issue of self-endangerment than shame avoidance).

One of my patients attributes her prosopagnosia (neurological difficulty in facial recognition) to her seeing red in her mother's eyes-she needed not to see hostility (similar to Fonagy's views on impaired mentalization in abused children-one does not wish to see the malevolence directed at oneself-resulting in an impairment of mentalization of one's own feelings/intentions and that of the other). Perhaps, she did not wish to see the impact she felt she was having on her mother reflected in the latter's eyes and represented as hostility (possibly increased anxiety, guilt,burden, etc.).

Some members of our group might be interested in the research articles available at the Neuroimaging Lab for Affective Neuroscience of the University of Wisconsin-Madison led by Richard Davidson-it is a valuable resource (some of the work they are doing involves studying neural changes as a result of Buddhist minfulness meditation-compassion meditation etc.).

Their website address is:

Brian Koehler PhD
New York University
80 East 11th Street #339
New York NY 10003

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