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Global motion perception deficits in autism are reflected as early as primary visual cortex

Caroline E. Robertson, Cibu Thomas, Dwight J. Kravitz, Gregory L. Wallace, Simon Baron-Cohen, Alex Martin, Chris I. Baker
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu189 2588-2599 First published online: 24 July 2014


Individuals with autism are often characterized as ‘seeing the trees, but not the forest’—attuned to individual details in the visual world at the expense of the global percept they compose. Here, we tested the extent to which global processing deficits in autism reflect impairments in (i) primary visual processing; or (ii) decision-formation, using an archetypal example of global perception, coherent motion perception. In an event-related functional MRI experiment, 43 intelligence quotient and age-matched male participants (21 with autism, age range 15–27 years) performed a series of coherent motion perception judgements in which the amount of local motion signals available to be integrated into a global percept was varied by controlling stimulus viewing duration (0.2 or 0.6 s) and the proportion of dots moving in the correct direction (coherence: 4%, 15%, 30%, 50%, or 75%). Both typical participants and those with autism evidenced the same basic pattern of accuracy in judging the direction of motion, with performance decreasing with reduced coherence and shorter viewing durations. Critically, these effects were exaggerated in autism: despite equal performance at the long duration, performance was more strongly reduced by shortening viewing duration in autism (P < 0.015) and decreasing stimulus coherence (P < 0.008). To assess the neural correlates of these effects we focused on the responses of primary visual cortex and the middle temporal area, critical in the early visual processing of motion signals, as well as a region in the intraparietal sulcus thought to be involved in perceptual decision-making. The behavioural results were mirrored in both primary visual cortex and the middle temporal area, with a greater reduction in response at short, compared with long, viewing durations in autism compared with controls (both P < 0.018). In contrast, there was no difference between the groups in the intraparietal sulcus (P > 0.574). These findings suggest that reduced global motion perception in autism is driven by an atypical response early in visual processing and may reflect a fundamental perturbation in neural circuitry.

  • autism
  • motion
  • fMRI
  • vision
  • global perception
  • Abbreviations
    autism spectrum disorders
    Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule
    middle temporal area
    primary visual cortex
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