Differences in neural activity when processing emotional arousal and valence in autism spectrum disorders

Angela Tseng, Zhishun Wang, Yuankai Huo, Suzanne Goh, James A. Russell, Bradley S. Peterson

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    17 Scopus citations


    Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have difficulty recognizing and interpreting facial expressions of emotion, which may impair their ability to navigate and communicate successfully in their social, interpersonal environments. Characterizing specific differences between individuals with ASD and their typically developing (TD) counterparts in the neural activity subserving their experience of emotional faces may provide distinct targets for ASD interventions. Thus we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and a parametric experimental design to identify brain regions in which neural activity correlated with ratings of arousal and valence for a broad range of emotional faces. Participants (51 ASD, 84 TD) were group-matched by age, sex, IQ, race, and socioeconomic status. Using task-related change in blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI signal as a measure, and covarying for age, sex, FSIQ, and ADOS scores, we detected significant differences across diagnostic groups in the neural activity subserving the dimension of arousal but not valence. BOLD-signal in TD participants correlated inversely with ratings of arousal in regions associated primarily with attentional functions, whereas BOLD-signal in ASD participants correlated positively with arousal ratings in regions commonly associated with impulse control and default-mode activity. Only minor differences were detected between groups in the BOLD signal correlates of valence ratings. Our findings provide unique insight into the emotional experiences of individuals with ASD. Although behavioral responses to face-stimuli were comparable across diagnostic groups, the corresponding neural activity for our ASD and TD groups differed dramatically. The near absence of group differences for valence correlates and the presence of strong group differences for arousal correlates suggest that individuals with ASD are not atypical in all aspects of emotion-processing. Studying these similarities and differences may help us to understand the origins of divergent interpersonal emotional experience in persons with ASD. Hum Brain Mapp 37:443-461, 2016.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)443-461
    Number of pages19
    JournalHuman Brain Mapping
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Feb 1 2016

    Bibliographical note

    Funding Information:
    Contract grant sponsor: NIMH; Contract grant numbers: R01MH089582 (BSP), 2 T32 MH16434 (BSP)

    Publisher Copyright:
    © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


    • Arousal
    • Autism spectrum disorders
    • Facial emotion
    • Valence
    • fMRI


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