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Levels of emotional awareness and autism: an fMRI study


Silani, G; Bird, G; Brindley, R; Singer, T; Frith, C; Frith, U (2008). Levels of emotional awareness and autism: an fMRI study. Social Neuroscience, 3(2):97-112.

Abstract

Autism is associated with an inability to identify and distinguish one’s own feelings. We assessed this inability using alexithymia and empathy questionnaires, and used fMRI to investigate brain activity while introspecting on emotion. Individuals with high functioning autism/Asperger
syndrome (HFA/AS) were compared with matched controls. Participants rated stimuli from the International Affective Picture System twice, once according to the degree of un/pleasantness that the pictures induced, and once according to their color balance. The groups differed significantly on both alexithymia and empathy questionnaires. Alexithymia and lack of empathy were correlated, indicating a link between understanding one’s own and others’ emotions. For both groups a strong
relationship between questionnaire scores and brain activity was found in the anterior insula (AI), when participants were required to assess their feelings to unpleasant pictures. Regardless of selfreported degree of emotional awareness, individuals with HFA/AS differed from controls when required to introspect on their feelings by showing reduced activation in self-reflection/mentalizing
regions. Thus, we conclude that difficulties in emotional awareness are related to hypoactivity in AI in both individuals with HFA/AS and controls, and that the particular difficulties in emotional awareness in individuals with HFA/AS are not related to their impairments in selfreflection/mentalizing.

Abstract

Autism is associated with an inability to identify and distinguish one’s own feelings. We assessed this inability using alexithymia and empathy questionnaires, and used fMRI to investigate brain activity while introspecting on emotion. Individuals with high functioning autism/Asperger
syndrome (HFA/AS) were compared with matched controls. Participants rated stimuli from the International Affective Picture System twice, once according to the degree of un/pleasantness that the pictures induced, and once according to their color balance. The groups differed significantly on both alexithymia and empathy questionnaires. Alexithymia and lack of empathy were correlated, indicating a link between understanding one’s own and others’ emotions. For both groups a strong
relationship between questionnaire scores and brain activity was found in the anterior insula (AI), when participants were required to assess their feelings to unpleasant pictures. Regardless of selfreported degree of emotional awareness, individuals with HFA/AS differed from controls when required to introspect on their feelings by showing reduced activation in self-reflection/mentalizing
regions. Thus, we conclude that difficulties in emotional awareness are related to hypoactivity in AI in both individuals with HFA/AS and controls, and that the particular difficulties in emotional awareness in individuals with HFA/AS are not related to their impairments in selfreflection/mentalizing.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:03 Faculty of Economics > Department of Economics
Dewey Decimal Classification:330 Economics
Language:English
Date:June 2008
Deposited On:10 Nov 2008 14:04
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 12:29
Publisher:Taylor & Francis
ISSN:1747-0919
Additional Information:This is an electronic version of an article published in Social Neuroscience 3(2):97-112. Social Neuroscience is available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470910701577020
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1080/17470910701577020

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