Do autism spectrum traits result in a qualitatively different type of developmental prosopagnosia?

Regan Fry, BA, BS

VA Boston Healthcare System
Do autism spectrum traits result in a qualitatively different type of developmental prosopagnosia?

Scientific Abstract

Background: Developmental prosopagnosia (DP) studies routinely exclude patients with high autism traits based on the assumption that these individuals show qualitative differences in face processing, perhaps due to eye avoidance or reduced social motivation. Indeed, studies have found that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often show selective face memory deficits and largely unimpaired holistic and perceptual processing, whereas DPs without ASD show deficits in face perception, holistic processing, and face memory.

Methods: To investigate the relationship between autism traits and face processing mechanisms in DP, using the autism quotient questionnaire, we classified 43 DPs as higher (AQ+, M=28.33, n=15) or lower (AQ-, M=14.50, n=28) in autism traits. We then administered an extensive battery of face perception and face memory tests as well as resting-state and task-based face localizer fMRI scans to 33 DPs and 25 healthy controls.

Results: We found a very similar pattern of performance in AQ+ and AQ- DPs across face processing tasks, with no differences in face matching (Cambridge Face Perception Test; p=.617), holistic processing (Inversion effect: p=.644; Part-whole effect: p=.170) featural processing (Eyes: p=.643; Mouth: p=.984), or face memory (Cambridge Face Memory Test; p=.598), with both groups showing significantly worse performance than controls. As expected, the AQ+ group showed significantly decreased face emotion recognition compared to the AQ- group (p=.028). During the fMRI localizer, both DP groups showed similarly reduced face selectivity in the left occipital and fusiform face areas compared to controls. The AQ+ DPs also showed decreased face selectivity in the bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus compared to the lower AQ DPs. Finally, both groups showed decreased resting-state functional connectivity across face regions compared to controls.

Conclusions: These results clearly show that face processing in AQ+ and AQ- DPs is very similar, with AQ+ DPs having additional face emotion recognition impairments. This suggests that the presence of autism traits in DP does not produce a qualitatively different form of DP.

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research Areas


Regan Fry, BA, BS, Xian Li, MS, Travis Evans, PhD, Michael Esterman, PhD, James Tanaka, PhD, Joseph DeGutis, PhD

Principal Investigator

Joseph DeGutis, PhD