Neural Correlates of Face Processing Associated with Development of Social Communication in 12-Month Infants with Familial Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Background: Differences in face processing in individuals with ASD is hypothesized to impact the development of social communication skills. This study aimed to characterize the neural correlates of face processing in 12-month-old infants at familial risk of developing ASD by (1) comparing face-sensitive event-related potentials (ERP) (Nc, N290, P400) between high-familial-risk infants who develop ASD (HR-ASD), high-familial-risk infants without ASD (HR-NoASD), and low-familial-risk infants (LR), and (2) evaluating how face-sensitive ERP components are associated with development of social communication skills.

Methods: 12-month-old infants participated in a study in which they were presented with alternating images of their mother’s face and the face of a stranger (LR = 45, HR-NoASD = 41, HR-ASD = 24) as EEG data were collected. Parent-reported and laboratory-observed social communication measures were obtained at 12 and 18 months. Group differences in ERP responses were evaluated using ANOVA, and multiple linear regressions were conducted with maternal education and outcome groups as covariates to assess relationships between ERP and behavioral measures.

Results: For each of the ERP components (Nc [negative-central], N290, and P400), the amplitude difference between mother and stranger (Mother-Stranger) trials was not statistically different between the three outcome groups (Nc p = 0.72, N290 p = 0.88, P400 p = 0.91). Marginal effects analyses found that within the LR group, a greater Nc Mother-Stranger response was associated with better expressive language skills on the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, controlling for maternal education and outcome group effects (marginal effects dy/dx = 1.15; p < 0.01). No significant associations were observed between the Nc and language or social measures in HR-NoASD or HR-ASD groups. In contrast, specific to the HR-ASD group, amplitude difference between the Mother versus Stranger P400 response was positively associated with expressive (dy/dx = 2.1, p < 0.001) and receptive language skills at 12 months (dy/dx = 1.68, p < 0.005), and negatively associated with social affect scores on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (dy/dx = – 1.22, p < 0.001) at 18 months.

Conclusions: In 12-month-old infant siblings with subsequent ASD, increased P400 response to Mother over Stranger faces is positively associated with concurrent language and future social skills.