The Behavioral and Neural Basis of Emotional Face Processing in Atypically Developing Children and Adolescents
The ability to recognize, interpret, and respond appropriately to the affective facial expressions of others is an important component of non-verbal communication; when face-emotion recognition is impaired there can be profound downstream consequences for social competencies such as empathy. This dissertation investigated the behavioral and neurocognitive underpinnings of face-emotion recognition in two developmental disorders--autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and psychopathy--associated with impaired facial affect recognition and dysfunction in empathic behavior. Three studies were conducted: 1) A meta-analysis of explicit face-emotion recognition associated with ASD combined data from 1,545 participants across forty-three studies. The results indicated individuals with ASD have generalized deficits in recognizing facial expressions and that face-emotion recognition abilities develop along a trajectory that differs from typical individuals. 2) Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to investigate face-emotion recognition in children and adolescents with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits, a developmental precursor to adult psychopathy. This study found externalizing behaviors were positively associated with amygdala responses to fearful facial expressions and callous-unemotional traits were negatively associated with amygdala responses to fearful facial expressions. Additionally, amygdala responses mediated the relationship between callous-unemotional traits and proactive aggression. 3) In the same sample of youths with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits, voxel-based morphometry was used to investigate how structural brain differences relate to externalizing behaviors and callous-unemotional traits, and found gray matter volume in several regions including the amygdala was positively associated with callous-unemotional traits. Finally, the results of all three studies were discussed in context of empathic deficits, which are also characteristic of ASD and psychopathy.
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