05/17/2005 07:00:00

Caltech Neuroscientist Receives Grant to Study How Autistic Patients Process Facial Information

PASADENA, Calif.--Ralph Adolphs, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, has been awarded a $120,000 grant from the Cure Autism Now foundation to study the way that autistic patients process information about other people's facial expressions.

The award will supplement Adolphs's ongoing work to understand the role of a brain structure, known as the amygdala, in certain disorders that make it difficult for sufferers to interpret other people's emotions. Adolphs is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Caltech and holds a joint appointment at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

According to Adolphs, the grant will lead to progress in understanding how the amygdala may be involved in autism, and also to possible ways for people with autism to improve their social functioning.

Earlier studies have shown that persons with autism have a hard time looking with sufficient attention at the faces of other people to read emotions. Yet, there is tantalizing evidence that the problem may not be entirely an inability to read facial expressions, but rather the lack of ability to focus attention on faces so that expressions can even be processed. Therefore, better knowledge of how people with autism look at faces could result in intervention strategies where they could be coached to focus their attention on facial expressions, even though they have no natural inclination to do so.

The pilot research award will be earmarked for a two-year period. Adolphs says that the first year of funding will involve a close study of how subjects view faces, followed in the second year with fMRI studies using Caltech's new scanners.

"If our hypotheses are supported, the implications might be dramatic for rehabilitation," Adolphs says. "In a sense, we could be helping people with autism to see the world socially by telling them specifically how to look at the world with their eye movements."

Founded in 1995, the Cure Autism Now foundation is an organization of parents, clinicians, and leading scientists committed to accelerating the pace of biomedical research in autism through research, education, and outreach.

Since its founding, the organization has committed over $23 million in research, the establishment of and ongoing support for the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange, and numerous outreach and awareness activities aimed at families, physicians, governmental officials, and the general public.

Written by Robert Tindol