June 17, 2021

Impaired Social Attention Detected Through Eye Movements in Children with Early-onset Epilepsy

Abstract, posted in Epilepsia

Objectives: Children with early-onset epilepsy (CWEOE; epilepsy onset before 5 years) exhibit impaired social functioning, but social attention has not yet been examined. In this study we sought to explore visual attention via eye tracking as a component of social attention and examine its relationship with social functioning and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) risk scores.

Methods: Forty-seven CWEOE (3-63 months) and 41 controls (3-61 months) completed two eye-tracking tasks: (1) preference for social versus nonsocial naturalistic scenes, and (2) face region preference task. ASD risk was measured via the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers or Conners Early Childhood Total Score. Social functioning was assessed via the Greenspan Social-Emotional Growth Chart, or Infant-Toddler Social & Emotional Assessment Competence Scale, or Conners Early Childhood Social Functioning Scale, depending on age. Fixation preferences for social scenes and eyes were compared between groups and evaluated by age and social functioning scores.

Results: Regression analysis revealed that CWEOE viewed the social scene to a significantly less degree than controls. The greatest difference was found between the youngest CWEOE and controls. Fixation duration was independently and significantly related to social functioning scores. There were no significant differences between CWEOE and controls in the face scanning task, and there was no significant relationship between either task and ASD risk scores.

Significance: Children with early-onset epilepsy exhibit task-specific atypical social attention early in the course of the disease. This may be an early marker of impaired social development, and it suggests abnormal social brain development.

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