Direct gaze elicits atypical activation of the theory-of-mind network in autism spectrum conditions.


Eye contact plays a key role in social interaction and is frequently reported to be atypical in individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASCs). Despite the importance of direct gaze, previous functional magnetic resonance imaging in ASC has generally focused on paradigms using averted gaze. The current study sought to determine the neural processing of faces displaying direct and averted gaze in 18 males with ASC and 23 matched controls. Controls showed an increased response to direct gaze in brain areas implicated in theory-of-mind and gaze perception, including medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, posterior superior temporal sulcus region, and amygdala. In contrast, the same regions showed an increased response to averted gaze in individuals with an ASC. This difference was confirmed by a significant gaze direction × group interaction. Relative to controls, participants with ASC also showed reduced functional connectivity between these regions. We suggest that, in the typical brain, perceiving another person gazing directly at you triggers spontaneous attributions of mental states (e.g. he is "interested" in me), and that such mental state attributions to direct gaze may be reduced or absent in the autistic brain.