This is the first study of its type and could have profound implications for our understanding of the drive to socialize, and in turn, the atypical use of gaze in autism.
Babies look longer at happy faces and this early interest in positive emotional expressions is a potential driving force for them to socialize. This preference for happy faces is also seen in typical adults, who prefer to look longer at happy faces compared to those showing disgust.
In contrast, people with autism look less at other people’s faces from an early age, and have difficulty in understanding facial expressions of emotion. One theory is that that this is because they do not find faces and other social stimuli rewarding.
New research published today in the journal Molecular Autism has found that depending on which variations of the cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) gene a person carries influences the amount of time people look at happy faces. The CNR1 gene is involved in the brain’s reward circuitry and expressed primarily in the regions of the brain involved in reward processing.
The new research was led by Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti from the University of Reading’s and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge.
The researchers analysed the DNA from 28 adult volunteers who were tested for how long they looked at eyes and mouths of faces in video clips of facial expressions of emotion. The team found two of the four variations tested for in the CNR1 gene correlated with a longer gaze at happy (but not disgust) faces.
Dr Chakrabarti commented: “How we look at social stimuli such as faces is extremely important in determining how we engage with the social world. The current work provides some preliminary clues in unravelling the genetic architecture underlying this crucial ability.”
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1. Author affiliations: Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, Cambridge University, Cambridge CB2 8AH, UK, (www.autismresearchcentre.com); Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics, School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AL, UK
2. Funding sources: Research grants from the Medical Research Council (UK); Target Autism Genome; the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation; NIHR CLAHRC for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, Trinity College, Cambridge
3. Article: Chakrabarti, B, & Baron-Cohen, S (2011) Variation in the human Cannabinoid Receptor (CNR1) gene modulates gaze duration for happy faces,
Molecular Autism online http://www.molecularautism.com/content/2/1/10/abstract
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