Influence of Autistic Traits and Social Anxiety on Gaze Patterns to Faces and Associated Neural Response

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
S. M. Malak1, S. A. A. Chang2, J. A. Trapani3, K. Stinson4, J. McPartland3 and A. Naples5, (1)Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (2)Yale University, New Haven, CT, (3)Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (4)Yale University- Child Study Center, Milford, CT, (5)Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Background:  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by decreased social motivation, as well as anxiety. Both attention, measured via eye-tracking, and brain response, as measured by event-related potentials (ERP) are reliable indices of social motivation and social anxiety. The N170, a face-sensitive ERP, is slowed and attenuated in ASD; in contrast, individuals with anxiety show faster, enhanced N170s. Furthermore, while individuals with ASD show decreased attention to faces and eyes, individuals displaying social anxiety show increased attention to eyes and faces. The interplay between anxiety and ASD and attention/neural response to faces remains unexplored.

Objectives:  Using EEG and eye-tracking, we examined relationships among autistic and social anxiety traits and: (1) looking patterns to neutral and fearful face stimuli; (2) brain response to faces; and (3) the relationship between these parameters and self-reported ASD symptomatology and social anxiety. We predicted that individuals with higher ratings of social anxiety symptoms would look more to the eyes, especially in the fear condition. In addition, we hypothesized that individuals with higher ratings of autistic traits would show an attenuated N170 response to faces. Those with higher anxiety were hypothesized to show an exaggerated and faster N170 to faces.

Methods:  ERPs were recorded from ten neurotypical adults using 128-channel Geodesic sensor nets while eye movements were recorded concurrently with an SR eye-tracking system. Participants viewed neutral and fear faces presented in random sequence for 5 seconds. ERPs were segmented to the onset of the face and to subsequent fixations. Eye-tracking variables included dwell time in specified ROIs (eyes, left/right eyes, between eyes, mouth, and nose) fixation duration, and dispersion. Social anxiety traits and autistic traits were quantified through self-report questionnaires (Social Avoidance and Distress Scale [SAD]; Autism Quotient [AQ]; Social Responsiveness Scale [SRS]). Data collection is ongoing.

Results:  Preliminary results indicate that earlier N170 latency is significantly correlated with higher scores on the AQ (fear condition: r= -.824, p= .003; neutral: r= -.838, p=.002), SAD (neutral condition: r= -.690, p= .027), and SRS (fear condition: r=-.828, p= .003; neutral: r=-.843, p=.002). Ongoing analyses of visual gaze data and fixation-related ERPs during free-viewing of faces will reveal relationships among anxiety and social function, neural response, and gaze.

Conclusions: Initial results reveal relationships among measures of both autistic traits and social anxiety and N170 latency. The hypothesis that those with more social anxiety traits would have faster N170 responses was supported; contrary to our predictions, autistic traits were also associated with decreased N170 latency. These findings may reflect hypervigilance and associated increased efficiency of neural response in individuals with higher levels of anxiety. These results indicate mutual influence of subthreshold ASD and anxiety on ERP indices of social perception.