Image_2_Atypical Amygdala–Neocortex Interaction During Dynamic Facial Expression Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder.TIF

Atypical reciprocal social interactions involving emotional facial expressions are a core clinical feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have demonstrated that some social brain regions, including subcortical (e.g., amygdala) and neocortical regions (e.g., fusiform gyrus, FG) are less activated during the processing of facial expression stimuli in individuals with ASD. However, the functional networking patterns between the subcortical and cortical regions in processing emotional facial expressions remain unclear. We investigated this issue in ASD (n = 31) and typically developing (TD; n = 31) individuals using fMRI. Participants viewed dynamic facial expressions of anger and happiness and their corresponding mosaic images. Regional brain activity analysis revealed reduced activation of several social brain regions, including the amygdala, in the ASD group compared with the TD group in response to dynamic facial expressions vs. dynamic mosaics (p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.19). Dynamic causal modeling (DCM) analyses were then used to compare models with forward, backward, and bi-directional effective connectivity between the amygdala and neocortical networks. The results revealed that: (1) the model with effective connectivity from the amygdala to the neocortex best fit the data of both groups; and (2) the same model best accounted for group differences. Coupling parameter (i.e., effective connectivity) analyses showed that the modulatory effects of dynamic facial processing were substantially weaker in the ASD group than in the TD group. These findings suggest that atypical modulation from the amygdala to the neocortex underlies impairment in social interaction involving dynamic facial expressions in individuals with ASD.