Pupillometry reveals perceptual differences that are tightly linked to autistic traits in typical adults

  • Turi M
  • Burr D
  • Binda P
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The pupil is primarily regulated by prevailing light levels but is also modulated by perceptual and attentional factors. We measured pupil-size in typical adult humans viewing a bistable-rotating cylinder, constructed so the luminance of the front surface changes with perceived direction of rotation. In some participants, pupil diameter oscillated in phase with the ambiguous perception, more dilated when the black surface was in front. Importantly, the magnitude of oscillation predicts autistic traits of participants, assessed by the Autism-Spectrum Quotient AQ. Further experiments suggest that these results are driven by differences in perceptual styles: high AQ participants focus on the front surface of the rotating cylinder, while those with low AQ distribute attention to both surfaces in a more global, holistic style. This is the first evidence that pupillometry reliably tracks inter-individual differences in perceptual styles; it does so quickly and objectively, without interfering with spontaneous perceptual strategies.The pupils control how much light reaches the eye. They become smaller in bright light and larger in darkness to let more light in. Other factors can also affect pupil size. For example, the pupils slightly constrict when a person focuses on brighter objects and they enlarge when focusing on a darker object.Tracking changes in pupil size can tell scientists what someone is focusing on. This can be helpful because different people distribute their attention differently. Some tend to focus on the big picture, others tune into individual details. People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to focus on the details.Now, Turi et al. showed that measuring pupil size changes during a simple visual task could identify typical people who have milder versions of the characteristics seen in people with ASD. In the experiments, 50 young adults without a diagnosis of an ASD filled out a questionnaire designed to assess how many ASD-like traits they have. Next, the participants watched an illusion of a cylinder with a light and dark side rotating. As they watched, the pupil size of people with more ASD-linked behaviors fluctuated more than the pupil size of those with few such characteristics.The pupils of people with ASD-type traits became larger when they perceived the dark side of the cylinder to be forward, and smaller when the light side appeared. This suggests they are focusing on the front of the cylinder. Future studies are needed to see if similar pupil fluctuations occur in people diagnosed with ASD. Turi et al. predict that pupil changes will be even more dramatic in people with ASD. If this is the case, these pupil measurements could be used to help diagnose ASD or determine the severity of symptoms.




Turi, M., Burr, D. C., & Binda, P. (2018). Pupillometry reveals perceptual differences that are tightly linked to autistic traits in typical adults. ELife, 7. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.32399

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