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Face Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders using Optically Pumped Magnetometers

Principal Supervisor: Dr KyungMin An

Secondary Supervisor(s): Dr Anna Kowalczyk (School of Psychology), Dr HyungJin Chang (School of Computer Science)

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

BBSRC Research Themes: Understanding the Rules of Life (Neuroscience and Behaviour)

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Deadline: 4 January, 2024


Project Outline

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours. Individuals with ASD tend to show a greater interest in objects rather than people and often have difficulty making eye contact. Previous studies have highlighted their struggles with face recognition and interpreting emotions from facial expressions. Infants with ASD typically exhibit reduced or absent responses to a parent's smiles or other facial expressions, which are early indicators of ASD.

Our research laboratory has a dedicated focus on exploring neural activity and brain oscillations in children with ASD1,2. This study aims to delve into both the behavioural and biological mechanisms involved in face processing among children with ASD. On the behavioural side, we will employ eye-tracking techniques to measure where and for how long they fixate on specific areas. In terms of the neurobiological aspect, we will employ optically pumped magnetometers (OPM) to detect brain activity3,4. OPM is recognized as one of the most sensitive magnetic sensors and represents the current state-of-the-art methodology for imaging brain activity in children.

The key objectives of this project are twofold: 1) to explore the differences in visual behaviours and brain activity patterns during face processing between typically developing children and those with ASD, and 2) to establish a connection between visual behaviours and brain activity related to face processing in individuals with ASD.

References

  1. An, Kyung-min, et al. "Aberrant brain oscillatory coupling from the primary motor cortex in children with autism spectrum disorders." NeuroImage: Clinical 29 (2021): 102560.
  2. An, Kyung-min, et al. "Altered gamma oscillations during motor control in children with autism spectrum disorder." Journal of Neuroscience 38.36 (2018): 7878-7886.
  3. An, Kyung-min, et al. "Detection of the 40 Hz auditory steady-state response with optically pumped magnetometers." Scientific Reports 12.1 (2022): 17993.
  4. Boto, Elena, et al. "Moving magnetoencephalography towards real-world applications with a wearable system." Nature 555.7698 (2018): 657-661.

Techniques

This project will focus its investigation on the behaviours and neuronal mechanisms associated with face processing in children diagnosed with ASD. The following techniques will be employed:

  1. Eye Tracking Techniques: These will be used to monitor and analyse visual behaviours, including gaze fixation points and gaze duration during face processing tasks in children with ASD.
  2. Optically Pumped Magnetometer (OPM): OPM sensors will be utilized to detect and measure magnetic fields induced by neural activity in the brain, providing insights into the brain's responses during face processing.

These two techniques are the primary methods mentioned in the project description for investigating the behaviours and neuronal mechanisms of face processing in children with ASD.