Positive facial expressions may hold the attention of AS patients longer

Participants in study spent more time looking at faces expressing positive emotion

Margarida Maia, PhD avatar

by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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An illustration of a woman waving to another person on a computer monitor.

Breaking into a smile may hold the attention of people with Angelman syndrome (AS) for longer than just holding a neutral face, a study suggests.

However, while positive facial emotions were attention-grabbing, people with AS didn’t spend as much time looking at them as did children who did not have AS. Positive facial emotions refer to facial expressions that convey positive emotions such as happiness and joy.

“This pattern of similarities and differences provides novel insight on the complex social phenotype [outward manifestations] of children with AS,” researchers wrote. 

The study, “Social attention and social-emotional modulation of attention in Angelman syndrome: an eye-tracking study,” was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Researchers used eye tracking to gauge attention

Children diagnosed with AS typically begin to show signs of delayed development when they are still infants. Later, they may experience symptoms such as difficulties speaking, problems with movement and balance, and seizures.

They’re easily excitable, frequently smiling and laughing, and highly driven toward engaging in social interactions with others. But they also have a short attention span and are hyperactive or restless, which may keep them from connecting with people in social environments.

To know more about what may hold the attention of people with AS, a team of researchers in the U.S. and Italy used eye tracking to follow the movement of each patient’s eyes as they watched people on a screen.

The study enrolled 24 people with AS. There were 16 female and eight male individuals, and their mean age was 11.8 years, ranging from 2.7 to 33.7 years. Their mental age, measured using an extended revised version of the Griffiths Mental Development Scales, averaged 20.1 months.

Two did not complete the protocol because the researchers had a hard time setting up the eye tracker; two others had difficulty keeping still while looking at the screen and also failed to get through the protocol.

As controls, the study also included 21 children who were matched by mental age to ensure that all participants had similar reasoning abilities. There were six girls and 15 boys, and their mean age was 23 months.

All participants watched videos of an unfamiliar actor doing simple actions under one of two conditions: a playful condition with positive facial emotions or a neutral condition with neutral facial expressions.

Compared with the control group, people with AS spent significantly less time looking at the screen, and a smaller proportion of time looking at faces over actions. The amount of time each one spent looking specifically at faces or actions was measured using eye tracking.

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Playfulness attracted more attention to faces

When the researchers watched for differences between the playful and neutral conditions, they found that being playful was more engaging for all participants. That is, everyone spent more time looking at the actor’s face when the actor showed positive facial emotions.

In contrast, the playful condition did not elicit increased time looking at the actors’ actions across participants.

The researchers also observed a negative correlation between age and the amount of time people with AS spent looking at the screen. This means that the older they were, the less time they spent looking at the screen.

“This unexpected negative correlation … could be due to the child-oriented video content being of less interest to the older participants,” the researchers wrote.

While the videos did not provide real-life interactions, “this is the first controlled study focusing on social attention and social modulation of attention in individuals with AS, thus providing new insights into the social phenotype of this under-studied population,” the researchers wrote.