San Diego State University researcher Inna Fishman received support from CTRI to investigate the basic brain networks that drive mimicry, or lack thereof, in individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
Smile and the world smiles with you.
Well, not always.
While most humans automatically mimic others' emotional facial expressions — such as smiles — individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do not.
"Humans – infants and adults alike – automatically mimic a variety of behaviors of others in everyday social situations. One of the most robust examples of mimicry is the spontaneous mirroring of others' emotional facial expressions," said Inna Fishman, PhD, a research assistant professor in the Psychology Department at San Diego State University (SDSU). "Critically, this fundamental social behavior is impaired in autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social functioning and affecting as many as one in 68 children."
Fishman received pilot project funding this year from UC San Diego Clinical and Translational Research Institute (CTRI) to investigate the basic brain networks that drive mimicry, or lack thereof, in individuals with ASD. San Diego State University is a CTRI partner research institution.
"We will use a multimodal approach linking facial muscle output to a real-time neural signal," she said in her proposal. "Examining impairments of connectivity in social brain networks can offer insight into possible core phenotype and contribute to our understanding of this prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder."
Image adapted from Fishman et al. (2014) study published in JAMA Psychiatry. View a larger image.
The emerging consensus in the field is that brain networks are disorganized in the autism spectrum. In some domains, she explained, the networks are under-connected and in others they are over-connected, that is, characterized by "noisy," extraneous connections with regions not typically included in a given network.
By combining two methodologies – peripheral facial muscle recording and functional brain imaging – as subjects perceive and automatically mimic others' emotions presented to them on a screen, Fishman hopes to glean insight into the mechanism behind impaired emotional processing in the spectrum. "If I have a recording of central neural processes that are responsible for processing emotions and combine it with the peripheral recording of emotional output—facial expressions—the two parallel measures will allow us to pinpoint the generators of imitation, or lack thereof in children with autism," Fishman said.
The pilot project will include 15 ASD subjects and 15 typically developing subjects, all children or adolescents between the ages of 7 and 17. The facial muscle activity of each will be measured using facial electromyolography (EMG) and the neural signals will be measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Each study participant will have about five small BAND-AID®-sized EMG electrodes on their faces in muscle areas responsible for displaying emotions, including the corner of the eye areas for smiling and the areas between the eyebrows and near the mouth corners for frowning. They will then be positioned in an fMRI scanner at the UC San Diego Center for Functional MRI and asked to "lie still like a statue." They will be shown pictures of various happy faces and angry faces, and the EMG and fMRI will measure each subject's emotions, facial expressions, and central neural processes during the photo displays.
In the first part of the two-part study, participants will just look at the pictures while their brain and facial muscle activity are recorded; in the second, they will be asked to imitate the emotions they see.
Fishman, an expert in functional connectivity, received a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of South Florida and completed a clinical neuropsychology residency at the UC San Diego Psychiatry Department. She is a recipient of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) National Research Service Award (postdoctoral fellowship) and the NIMH Career Development (K) Award. Fishman is working on the CTRI-supported pilot project with Piotr Winkielman, a UC San Diego psychology professor who is an expert in EMG analyses.
The pilot project award from CTRI is $25,000 for one year, covering the expense of purchasing MRI-compatible EMG equipment, scanner time, human subjects' costs, and personnel. It enables Fishman to collect solid preliminary data that can be used for a larger grant application that could take the research to the next level, resulting in what she described as "very promising" tangible benefits for this increasingly prevalent life-long disorder.
"We don't have solid brain markers, or biomarkers at all for autism," Fishman said. "Our hope is to find some characteristic of either brain function or structure that can be used diagnostically or in prediction of the disorder course or prognosis."
Written by Patti Wieser