A functional neuroimaging study of fusiform response to restricted interests in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder

Jennifer H. Foss-Feig, Rankin W. McGugin, Isabel Gauthier, Lisa E. Mash, Pamela Ventola, Carissa J. Cascio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Background: While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by both social communication deficits and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interest, literature examining possible neural bases of the latter class of symptoms is limited. The fusiform face area (FFA) is a region in the ventral temporal cortex that not only shows preferential responsiveness to faces but also responds to non-face objects of visual expertise. Because restricted interests in ASD are accompanied by high levels of visual expertise, the objective of this study was to determine the extent to which this region responds to images related to restricted interests in individuals with ASD, compared to individuals without ASD who have a strong hobby or interest. Methods: Children and adolescents with and without ASD with hobbies or interests that consumed a pre-determined minimum amount of time were identified, and the intensity, frequency, and degree of interference of these interests were quantified. Each participant underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while viewing images related to their personal restricted interests (in the ASD group) or strong interest or hobby (in the comparison group). A generalized linear model was used to compare the intensity and spatial extent of fusiform gyrus response between groups, controlling for the appearance of faces in the stimuli. Results: Images related to interests and expertise elicited response in FFA in both ASD and typically developing individuals, but this response was more robust in ASD. Conclusions: These findings add neurobiological support to behavioral observations that restricted interests are associated with enhanced visual expertise in ASD, above and beyond what would be expected for simply a strong interest. Further, the results suggest that brain regions associated with social functioning may not be inherently less responsive in ASD, but rather may be recruited by different environmental stimuli. This study contributes to our understanding of the neural basis of restricted interests in ASD and may provide clues toward developing novel interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number15
JournalJournal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Issue number1
StatePublished - 14 Apr 2016


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Expertise
  • Fusiform face area
  • Fusiform gyrus
  • Restricted interests
  • fMRI


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