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Frequency-tagging EEG of superimposed social and non-social visual streams reveals reduced saliency of social information in boys with autism

Journal Contribution - Journal Article

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulties with social communication and interaction. The social motivation hypothesis states that a reduced interest in social stimuli may partly underlie these difficulties. Thus far, however, it has been challenging to quantify individual differences in social orientation and interest, and to pinpoint the neural underpinnings of it. In this study, we tested the neural sensitivity for social versus non-social information in 21 boys with ASD (8-12 years old) and 21 typically developing (TD) control boys, matched for age and IQ, while children were engaged in an orthogonal task. We recorded electroencephalography (EEG) during fast periodic visual stimulation (FPVS) of social versus non-social stimuli to obtain an objective implicit neural measure of relative social bias. Streams of variable images of faces and houses were superimposed, and each stream of stimuli was tagged with a particular presentation rate (i.e., 6 and 7.5 Hz or vice versa). This frequency-tagging method allows disentangling the respective neural responses evoked by the different streams of stimuli. Moreover, by using superimposed stimuli, we controlled for possible effects of preferential looking, spatial attention, and disengagement. Based on four trials of 60 s, we observed a significant three-way interaction. In the control group, the frequency-tagged neural responses to faces were larger than those to houses, especially in lateral occipito-temporal channels, while the responses to houses were larger over medial occipital channels. In the ASD group, however, faces and houses did not elicit significantly different neural responses in any of the regions. Given the short recording time of the frequency-tagging paradigm with multiple simultaneous inputs and the robustness of the individual responses, the method could be used as a sensitive marker of social preference in a wide range of populations, including younger and challenging populations.
Journal: Frontiers in Psychiatry
Volume: 11
Number of pages: 12
Publication year:2020