AsianScientist (Sept. 4, 2017) – In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists in Australia have identified a link between masculine facial features and autism.
Genetic factors are known to play a major role in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However there is growing evidence that hormonal factors also influence development of the condition.
In this study, a team of researchers from the University of Western Australia (UWA) used 3D photogrammetry to examine whether pre-pubescent boys and girls with ASD displayed more masculine features compared to those without the condition.
A computer algorithm designed by UWA researchers was used to generate a gender score for a sample of 3D facial images to create a scale ranging from very masculine to very feminine. The gender scores were based on an analysis of 11 facial features such as breadth of a person’s nose, distance between the outer corners of the eyes, upper lip height and width of the mouth.
This scoring system was used to compare the facial features between a control group and an autistic group. The control group consisted of a total of 113 girls and 102 boys, while the autistic group comprised 20 girls and 54 boys. For each sex, increased facial masculinity was observed in the ASD group compared to the control group.
Further analysis revealed that increased facial masculinity in the group with autism correlated with more social communication difficulties as measured on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale.
UWA Research associate Mr. Syed Zulqarnain Gilani from UWA’s School of Computer Science and Software Engineering said the extent of facial masculinity varied from one individual to another.
“We have developed an algorithm to measure this variation using 3D images of people, which calculates a metric for each face. We refer to this as the gender score,” said Gilani.
The study is the first to report that the faces of boys and girls with ASD are more masculinized than the faces of typically developing children, according to research associate Dr. Diana Tan, from UWA’s School of Psychological Science.
“In our previous research, we found that a more masculinized facial profile was associated with increased exposure to prenatal testosterone,” said Tan. “The current findings highlight a possible connection between prenatal testosterone and ASD.
“A facial characteristic that is unique to ASD provides potential biological markers for this condition. In the long run, we hope to further explore the possibility for 3D facial images to be used as a complementary diagnostic tool to aid in the early identification of ASD,” she added.
Source: University of Western Australia.
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