I am interested in the mechanisms underlying social cognition and in how they break down in autism. Given the importance of facial cues in social communication, my research is aimed at uncovering the behavioral and neural processes involved in perceiving and using gaze and emotion cues.
During my PhD, I used electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate how attention orienting toward others’ gaze direction is affected by the facial expression of the gazing face and the personality traits (i.e., anxiety, autistic traits) of the observer. During my first postdoc at the Autism Research Center of Cambridge University, I led the ASC-Inclusion project aimed at developing and evaluating an online game to teach socio-emotional skills to children with autism. As part of this EU funded project, I collaborated with clinical teams in Israel, Sweden and Poland to investigate the differences in how children with and without autism recognize and express emotions across various modalities (facial expression, body language, tone of voice). I am currently a postdoc at Harvard Medical School, where I have been further exploring the brain bases of atypical social processing in autism, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Title: Ouch and yikes: autism, alexithymia and emotional reaction
Abstract: Whether empathy is diminished in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) remains unclear. Previous functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies investigating affective empathy in people with ASD did not always show decreased brain activation in the neural network associated with empathy, but these studies used different kinds of stimuli (e.g., facial expressions of unknown others in pain, limbs of known or unknown others in painful situation). In addition, many of these studies did not monitor whether participants were affected by alexithymia, even though this condition is frequently comorbid of ASD. In the present study, we collected fMRI data from 47 participants (22 ASD) who viewed pictures depicting hands and feet of unfamiliar others in painful, disgusting, or neutral situations, and had to label the emotion evoked by each stimulus. We computed labeling accuracy and whole brain activity for the contrasts Painful vs. Neutral and Disgusting vs. Neutral, and investigated the role of alexithymia. Group differences in brain activity were also computed in regions of interest (ROIs) within the empathy network. We found that ASD participants had decreased activation to painful and to disgusting stimuli compared with controls, especially in regions involved in emotional resonance. However, group differences in brain activation, and in labeling accuracy disappeared when alexithymia was controlled for. Together our results suggest that affective empathy is not directly affected in ASD, and that alexithymia, because of its association with reduced motor resonance, may lead to emotional labeling difficulties in ASD. We discuss the implications of our findings for the diagnosis and treatment of ASD.