autismTraining the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can improve their ability to understand facial expressions, according to new research.

Understanding the facial expressions people encounter in others is something they learn as they develop and is known as facial affect recognition (FAR). It helps them to interpret each other’s emotions. However, this skill can be reduced in people with ASD, due to abnormal functioning of the parts of the brain associated with social skills (the social brain).

But, over time, and with training and practice, it is possible for the brain to adapt and overcome abnormal functioning. This characteristic is known as ‘plasticity’.

Training-induced plasticity has been demonstrated to be possible for many mental health conditions such as depression and schizophrenia. The study, by Sven Bölte and colleagues from the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, used computer-based training to build on this research.

The investigation focused on 32 adolescent volunteers with ASD. The brain activity of the social brain area and FAR skills of all participants were first compared to a group of individuals without ASD, along with their ability to recognise facial expressions. This confirmed reduced FAR skills and social brain activity in those people with ASD.

Half the ASD group then received computer-based FAR training and the others did not. The training aimed to teach clear recognition of facially-expressed emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, fear and neutrality.

After it was completed, FAR skills testing showed an improvement in facial recognition and brain imaging techniques showed increased activity in the social brain areas of the ASD individuals who had undertaken it.

“These results are very encouraging,” Professor Bölte said. “We now understand more about why people with ASD often have difficulty understanding the emotional cues in the faces of other people, and have shown that techniques can be used to train the brain to overcome this.”

“Further research will hopefully confirm our current findings and lead to the development of ways of enhancing the communication skills of people with ASD.”

The research is published on BJPsych online – click here to see the full study.