The role of the fusiform face area in social cognition: implications for the pathobiology of autism

Robert T. Schultz, David J. Grelotti, Ami Klin, Jamie Kleinman, Christiaan Van der Gaag, René Marois, Pawel Skudlarski

Abstract

A region in the lateral aspect of the fusiform gyrus (FG) is more engaged by human faces than any other category of image. It has come to be known as the ‘fusiform face area’ (FFA). The origin and extent of this specialization is currently a topic of great interest and debate. This is of special relevance to autism, because recent studies have shown that the FFA is hypoactive to faces in this disorder. In two linked functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of healthy young adults, we show here that the FFA is engaged by a social attribution task (SAT) involving perception of human–like interactions among three simple geometric shapes. The amygdala, temporal pole, medial prefrontal cortex, inferolateral frontal cortex and superior temporal sulci were also significantly engaged. Activation of the FFA to a task without faces challenges the received view that the FFA is restricted in its activities to the perception of faces. We speculate that abstract semantic information associated with faces is encoded in the FG region and retrieved for social computations. From this perspective, the literature on hypoactivation of the FFA in autism may be interpreted as a reflection of a core social cognitive mechanism underlying the disorder.

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