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Qualitative differences in the spatiotemporal brain states supporting configural face processing emerge in adolescence in autism

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-29
Number of pages17
PublishedOct 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: This work was supported by EU-AIMS (European Autism Interventions), which received support from the Innovative Medicines Initiative Joint Undertaking under grant agreement no. 115300, the resources of which are composed of financial contributions from the European Union’ s Seventh Framework Programme (grant FP7/2007–2013), from the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations companies’ in-kind contributions, and from Autism Speaks as well as AIMS-2-TRIALS which received support from the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking under grant agreement No 777394. This joint undertaking receives support from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and EFPIA and AUTISM SPEAKS, Autistica, SFARI. Disclaimer: The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results. Any views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the funders. Funding Information: This work has further been supported by the UK Medical Research Council [grant number G0701484 & MR/K021389/1 ](MJ/EJ), and Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/R009368/1](EJ), and the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union [CANDY project, grant number 847818 ](JB). Publisher Copyright: © 2022 The Author(s)

King's Authors


Background: Studying the neural processing of faces can illuminate the mechanisms of compromised social expertise in autism. To resolve a longstanding debate, we examined whether differences in configural face processing in autism are underpinned by quantitative differences in the activation of typical face processing pathways, or the recruitment of non-typical neural systems. Methods: We investigated spatial and temporal characteristics of event-related EEG responses to upright and inverted faces in a large sample of children, adolescents, and adults with and without autism. We examined topographic analyses of variance and global field power to identify group differences in the spatial and temporal response to face inversion. We then examined how quasi-stable spatiotemporal profiles – microstates – are modulated by face orientation and diagnostic group. Results: Upright and inverted faces produced distinct profiles of topography and strength in the topographical analyses. These topographical profiles differed between diagnostic groups in adolescents, but not in children or adults. In the microstate analysis, the autistic group showed differences in the activation strength of normative microstates during early-stage processing at all ages, suggesting consistent quantitative differences in the operation of typical processing pathways; qualitative differences in microstate topographies during late-stage processing became prominent in adults, suggesting the increasing involvement of non-typical neural systems with processing time and over development. Conclusions: These findings suggest that early difficulties with configural face processing may trigger later compensatory processes in autism that emerge in later development.

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