Amygdala response to faces parallels social behavior in Williams syndrome


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Abstract

Individuals with Williams syndrome (WS), a genetically determined disorder, show relatively strong face-processing abilities despite poor visuospatial skills and depressed intellectual function. Interestingly, beginning early in childhood they also show an unusually high level of interest in face-to-face social interaction. We employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate physiological responses in face-sensitive brain regions, including ventral occipito-temporal cortex and the amygdala, in this unique genetic disorder. Participants included 17 individuals with WS, 17 age- and gender-matched healthy adults (chronological age-matched controls, CA) and 17 typically developing 8- to 9-year-old children (developmental age controls, DA). While engaged in a face discrimination task, WS participants failed to recruit the amygdala, unlike both CA and DA controls. WS fMRI responses in ventral occipito-temporal cortex, however, were comparable to those of DA controls. Given the integral role of the amygdala in social behavior, the failure of WS participants to recruit this region during face processing may be a neural correlate of the abnormally high sociability that characterizes this disorder.

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