Neurophysiological correlates of holistic face processing in adolescents with and without autism spectrum disorder

Sandra Naumann, Ulrike Senftleben, Megha Santhosh, James McPartland, Sara Jane Webb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Face processing has been found to be impaired in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). One hypothesis is that individuals with ASD engage in piecemeal compared to holistic face processing strategies. To investigate the role of possible impairments in holistic face processing in individuals with autism, the current study investigated behavioral and electroencephalography (EEG) correlates of face processing (P1/N170 and gamma-band activity) in adolescents with ASD and sex-, age-, and IQ-matched neurotypical controls.

Participants were presented with upright and inverted Mooney stimuli; black and white low information faces that are only perceived as faces when processed holistically. Participants indicated behaviorally the detection of a face. EEG was collected time-locked to the presentation of the stimuli.

Adolescents with ASD perceived Mooney stimuli as faces suggesting ability to use holistic processing but displayed a lower face detection rate and slower response times. ERP components suggest slowed temporal processing of Mooney stimuli in the ASD compared to control group for P1 latency but no differences between groups for P1 amplitude and at the N170. Increases in gamma-band activity was similar during the perception of the Mooney images by group, but the ASD group showed prolonged temporal elevation in activity.

Overall, our results suggest that adolescents with ASD were able to utilize holistic processing to perceive a face within the Mooney stimuli. Delays in early processing, marked by the P1, and elongated elevation in gamma activity indicate that the neural systems supporting holistic processing are slightly altered suggesting a less automatic and less efficient facial processing system.
Original languageEnglish
Article number27
JournalJournal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2018

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s). 2018. Open Access - This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Funding: Funding was provided by the Cure Autism Now (Webb) and NIH (R01
MH10028, Pelphrey).


  • ASD
  • Gamma-band activity
  • Holistic face processing
  • P1
  • N170


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