Background: Inherited abnormalities of perception, recognition, and attention to faces have been implicated in the etiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) including abnormal components of event-related brain potentials (ERP) elicited by faces. Methods: We examined familial aggregation of face processing ERP abnormalities previously implicated in ASD in 49 verbal individuals with ASD, 36 unaffected siblings (US), 18 unaffected fathers (UF), and 53 unrelated controls (UC). The ASD, US, and UC groups ranged in age from 12 to 21 years, the UF group ranged in age from 30 to 56 years. ERP responses to images of upright and inverted faces and houses were analyzed under disparate EEG reference schemes. Results: Face-sensitive features of N170 and P1 were readily observed in all groups. Differences between ASD and control groups depended upon the EEG reference scheme. Notably, the superiority of face over object for N170 latency was attenuated in ASD subjects, but not their relatives; this occurred exclusively with the average reference. The difference in N170 amplitude between inverted and upright faces was reduced in both ASD and US groups relative to UC, but this effect was significant only with the vertex reference. Furthermore, similar group differences were observed for both inverted faces and inverted houses, suggesting a lack of face specificity for the attenuation of the N170 inversion effect in ASD. Conclusion: The present findings refine understanding of face processing ERPs in ASD. These data provide only modest evidence for highly-selective ASD-sensitive ERP features, and underscore the sensitivity of these biomarkers to ERP reference scheme. These schemes have varied across published studies and must be accounted for in future studies of the relationship between these commonly acquired ERP characteristics, genotype, and ASD.
- Autistic disorder