Friday, June 24, 2011

FaceStation Gaming Study at CAR

Liz McGary
Clinic Intern
Center for Autism Research


Did anyone ever teach you what a sad face looks like? How about a happy one? What about confusion, anger, or surprise? Most likely, no one had to teach you what those emotions looked like because your brain figured them out on its own. The Fusiform Gyrus is one important part of our brain that allows us to process faces and facial information, and for most people it does its job just fine. For people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), however, different functioning of this brain structure can make reading faces and situations extremely difficult.

When I was in high school, I volunteered with a class of three teenagers with ASD. During my first visit, the classroom teacher described his students’ inability to read social cues. Mr. G explained that school bullies would politely ask to “borrow” his students’ lunch money everyday.  Although most teenagers would see right through the bullies’ sneaky grins, Mr. G’s class assumed that any smile was a friendly one; they handed over their lunch money time and time again.

 I was reminded of Mr. G’s story last week during my internship at the Center for Autism Research (CAR). CAR is in the process of testing out a new intervention designed to help children with ASD overcome facial processing difficulties and eventually improve their social skills. Of course, if an intervention is designed to help kids learn, what could be better for the job than a computer game? The intervention, known as FaceStation, is a suite of computer games that aim to improve facial recognition skills in a way that is interesting and fun. For example, in one game, Face Invaders!, aliens have come to school and are keeping faces captive--you must use your knowledge of facial identities or expressions to free the faces!

CAR researchers are testing the effectiveness of the FaceStation games using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after game play. The study team will see if areas of the brain responsible for processing social information are more activated after game play. Finding that they are would indicate that the skills developed through playing the games might be generalized to other settings – like school and home.

It is really satisfying to see that there is an entire team of researchers working to help students like Mr. G’s, and I am really excited that I get to be a part of it.  If you have a child between the ages of 8 and 18 who might be interested in joining the FaceStation trial intervention, email autism@email.chop.edu or call 1-866-570-6524 for more information.