Development of an ERP Outcome Measure for Treatment Studies in Autism Spectrum Disorder (2015-16)

A child’s ability to successfully recognize an emotion in a face, coupled with the ability to then follow that face’s gaze towards a novel object, allows him or her to appropriately process and react to that object. This project seeks to develop an Event Related Potentials (ERP) paradigm for measuring gaze following and object processing that is ideal for use as an outcome measure for treatment studies.

PI: Susan Rivera, Psychology

Collaborator: Sally Rogers, Psychiatry (School of Medicine)


A toddler can look to her mother’s fearful face gazing toward an object in the surrounding environment (such as a hot stove), and then become more vigilant toward that object. In this way, differentiating emotions and following gaze can be thought of as essential building blocks to learning about both the emotional and the physical world.

Typically developing (TD) infants are able to differentiate emotions in faces and also use emotional gaze cues to guide attention, as evidenced by neural (ERP) and eye-tracking methods. While gaze following itself is considered a reflexive process, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been shown to display deficits in emotion recognition and some aspects of gaze following. In the current study, we will measure emotion recognition, gaze following and subsequent object processing in the same paradigm.

Event Related Potentials (ERPs) will be recorded during presentations of emotional or neutral faces looking toward novel objects and during the presentation of objects previously cued by emotional or neutral faces. In this way, we are both measuring the child’s ability to follow gaze in the presence of an emotional or neutral face and measuring the function of that gaze-following—i.e., how it affects their processing and learning about objects that are being referenced. These abilities (gaze following, emotion processing, and object processing) are ideal targets for intervention because these skills comprise the most basic components of social learning.

This project is a new collaboration between Professor Susan Rivera (Department of Psychology) and Dr. Sally Rogers (UCDMC, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences) –both faculty members of the UC Davis MIND Institute.  Dr. Rivera brings years of experience using psychophysical and neuroimaging methods in children with and without developmental disorders (such as ASD and fragile X syndrome) and Dr. Rogers is a world-renown expert in assessment and early intervention in children with ASD.