Examining the bidirectional association between emotion recognition and social autistic traits using observational and genetic analyses

Zoe E Reed*, Liam Mahedy, Abigail Jackson, George Davey Smith, Ian Penton-Voak, Angela S Attwood, Marcus R Munafò

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Abstract

Background: There is mixed evidence for an association between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and emotion recognition deficits. We sought to assess the bidirectionality of this association using phenotypic and genetic data in a large community sample.

Methods: Analyses were conducted in three stages. First, we examined the bidirectional association between social autistic traits at age 8 years and emotion recognition task (ERT) responses at age 24 years (Study 1; N=3,562); and between Diagnostic Analysis of Non-Verbal Accuracy (DANVA) emotion recognition responses at age 8 years and social autistic traits at age 10 years (Study 2; N=9,071). Next, we used genetic analyses (Study 3) to examine the association between polygenic risk scores for ASD and outcomes for the ERT and DANVA. The genetic correlation between ASD and ERT responses at age 24 was also estimated. Analyses were conducted in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

Results: Social autistic traits at age 8 years were negatively associated with later total correct responses on ERT in Study 1 (b=-0.18; 95% CI: -0.27 to -0.09). We also found evidence of an association in Study 2 (b=-0.04; 95% CI: -0.05 to -0.03). We found the opposite association i.e., positive, between the ASD polygenic risk score and ERT (b=0.40; 95% CI: 0.10 to 0.70); however, this association varied across different p-value thresholds, and would not survive multiple testing, so should be interpreted with caution. We did not find evidence of a genetic correlation between ASD and ERT.

Conclusion: We found an observational association between poorer emotion recognition and increased social autistic traits. Our genetic analyses may suggest a shared genetic aetiology between these or a potential causal pathway, however future research would benefit from using better powered GWAS to examine this further. Our results may inform interventions targeting emotion recognition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1330-1338
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Volume62
Issue number11
Early online date2 Mar 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors are extremely grateful to all the families who took part in this study, the midwives for their help in recruiting them, and the whole ALSPAC team, which includes interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists and nurses. This work was supported in part by the UK Medical Research Council Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol (Grant ref: MC_UU_00011/1, MC_UU_00011/7). The UK Medical Research Council and Wellcome (Grant ref: 217065/Z/19/Z) and the University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC. This publication is the work of the authors, and Z.E.R., L.M., A.J., G.D.S., I.P.V., A.S.A. and M.R.M. will serve as guarantors for the contents of this paper. A comprehensive list of grants funding is available on the ALSPAC website (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/alspac/external/documents/grant-acknowledgements.pdf). GWAS data was generated by Sample Logistics and Genotyping Facilities at Wellcome Sanger Institute and LabCorp (Laboratory Corporation of America) using support from 23andMe. Z.E.R. is supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, University of Bristol and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (Grant ref:204813/Z/16/Z). L.M. is supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, University of Bristol and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (Grant ref: 204813/Z/16/Z). I.P.V. and M.R.M. are supported by the National Institute for Health Research Bristol Biomedical Research Centre. I.P.V. and M.R.M. are codirectors of Jericoe Ltd. a company that licences software for the assessment and modification of emotion recognition. All other authors have declared that they have no competing or potential conflicts of interest.Key points Emotion recognition deficits are thought to be present in individuals with ASD which may impair social function, but findings are mixed. In our study, we found that there was a negative association between ASD symptoms and both later and earlier emotion recognition. We also found a positive association between a polygenic risk score for ASD and emotion recognition ability, although this varied across p-value thresholds, so should be interpreted with caution. This may indicate that genetic variants for ASD are also shared with emotion recognition or that ASD causally influences emotion recognition. Our findings may have implications for intervention development targeting emotion recognition, if this is in fact causal. Emotion recognition deficits are thought to be present in individuals with ASD which may impair social function, but findings are mixed. In our study, we found that there was a negative association between ASD symptoms and both later and earlier emotion recognition. We also found a positive association between a polygenic risk score for ASD and emotion recognition ability, although this varied across p-value thresholds, so should be interpreted with caution. This may indicate that genetic variants for ASD are also shared with emotion recognition or that ASD causally influences emotion recognition. Our findings may have implications for intervention development targeting emotion recognition, if this is in fact causal.

Funding Information:
The authors are extremely grateful to all the families who took part in this study, the midwives for their help in recruiting them, and the whole ALSPAC team, which includes interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists and nurses. This work was supported in part by the UK Medical Research Council Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol (Grant ref: MC_UU_00011/1, MC_UU_00011/7). The UK Medical Research Council and Wellcome (Grant ref: 217065/Z/19/Z) and the University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC. This publication is the work of the authors, and Z.E.R., L.M., A.J., G.D.S., I.P.V., A.S.A. and M.R.M. will serve as guarantors for the contents of this paper. A comprehensive list of grants funding is available on the ALSPAC website ( http://www.bristol.ac.uk/alspac/external/documents/grant‐acknowledgements.pdf ). GWAS data was generated by Sample Logistics and Genotyping Facilities at Wellcome Sanger Institute and LabCorp (Laboratory Corporation of America) using support from 23andMe. Z.E.R. is supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, University of Bristol and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (Grant ref:204813/Z/16/Z). L.M. is supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, University of Bristol and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (Grant ref: 204813/Z/16/Z). I.P.V. and M.R.M. are supported by the National Institute for Health Research Bristol Biomedical Research Centre. I.P.V. and M.R.M. are codirectors of Jericoe Ltd. a company that licences software for the assessment and modification of emotion recognition. All other authors have declared that they have no competing or potential conflicts of interest. Key points

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

Structured keywords

  • ALSPAC

Keywords

  • autism spectrum disorder
  • social autistic traits
  • emotion recognition
  • polygenic risk score
  • ALSPAC

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