Visual Perception and Circuit-Level Insights into Autism

Seminar | March 20 | 12-1:30 p.m. | 489 Minor Hall

 Caroline Roberston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 Neuroscience Institute, Helen Wills

Atypical visual perception is a defining characteristic of autism, noted since the earliest reports of the condition. We know very little about where visual differences arise in the autistic brain or how they relate to the wider litany of symptoms associated with the condition. In this talk, I will first present extensive fMRI and psychophysical evidence that autistic visual differences originate in primary visual regions of the brain, and yet demonstrate an intriguing relationship to clinical measures of symptom severity in higher-order (social/cognitive) behaviors. These findings suggest that autistic visual symptoms may reflect low-level, but pervasive alterations in neural circuitry. I will then describe our recent work using Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and pharmacology to articulate the neural underpinnings of these symptoms. Specifically, I will present an empirical link between a particular neurotransmitter in the autistic brain (GABA) and robust and replicated differences in autistic visual behavior. Finally, I will propose that understanding visual representations in autism may enable us to form a unified account of disparate levels of autistic symptomatology, and to bridge circuit-level theories of the autistic brain with symptoms people experience in real life.