Abstract: Young Adults’ Autistic Behaviors Predict N170 Responses to Emotional Stimuli

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by deficits in communication and social interaction. ASD individuals also show impairments in emotion identification, especially for negative emotions and surprise. This deficit may be related to neural differences in the N170 event-related potential (ERP) found in ASD individuals, suggesting that they may fail to activate the neural areas necessary for face processing. Because ASD is a spectrum condition, using non-clinical samples of individuals on the broader autism phenotype (BAP) can help us understand emotion processing related to ASD.

The current study was designed to test whether N170 amplitude in response to emotion processing differs as a function of levels of autistic traits, task, and stimulus content. Subclinical participants (n=34) viewed emotional faces that displayed the full face for some blocks and just the eyes for others. Instructions varied so that participants indicated if the emotion was positive or negative or whether the emotion matched that of the previous face. Participants then completed the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire (BAPQ) to measure their level of autistic traits.

Results revealed that individuals with higher BAPQ scores showed differences in N170 based on the task. Specifically, when completing the matching task, they showed significantly higher N170 amplitudes for surprise versus anger, happy versus neutral, and surprise versus neutral emotions.

These results provide a better understanding of neural activity during emotion processing for those on the BAP and add to work showing that neural differences may contribute to deficits in emotion processing for ASD individuals.