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Autistic and non-autistic individuals show the same amygdala activity during emotional face processing.

Molecular Autism 2024 January 11
BACKGROUND: Autistic and non-autistic individuals often differ in how they perceive and show emotions, especially in their ability and inclination to infer other people's feelings from subtle cues like facial expressions. Prominent theories of autism have suggested that these differences stem from alterations in amygdala functioning and that amygdala hypoactivation causes problems with emotion recognition. Thus far, however, empirical investigations of this hypothesis have yielded mixed results and largely relied on relatively small samples.

METHODS: In a sample of 72 autistic and 79 non-autistic participants, we conducted a study in which we used the Hariri paradigm to test whether amygdala activation during emotional face processing is altered in autism spectrum disorder, and whether common mental disorders like depression, ADHD or anxiety disorders influence any potential alterations in activation patterns.

RESULTS: We found no evidence for differences in amygdala activation, neither when comparing autistic and non-autistic participants, nor when taking into account mental disorders or the overall level of functional impairment.

LIMITATIONS: Because we used one basic emotion processing task in a Dutch sample, results might not generalise to other tasks and other populations.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results challenge the view that autistic and non-autistic processing of emotional faces in the amygdala is vastly different and call for a more nuanced view of differences between non-autistic and autistic emotion processing.

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