Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) Improves Empathy and Recognition of Facial Emotions Conveying Threat in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

  • Joan Esse Wilson, Ph.D. New Mexico State University
  • Michael C Trumbo, Ph.D. Sandia National Laboratory
  • Claudia D. Tesche, Ph.D. University of New Mexico Department of Psychology
Keywords: transcranial direct current stimulation, autism spectrum disorder, right temporoparietal junction, empathy, threat, facial emotion recognition


Introduction: Empathy is critical for human interactions to become shared and meaningful, and it is facilitated by the expression and processing of facial emotions.  Deficits in empathy and facial emotion recognition are associated with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with specific concerns over inaccurate recognition of facial emotion expressions conveying a threat. Yet, the number of evidenced interventions for facial emotion recognition and processing (FERP), emotion, and empathy remains limited, particularly for adults with ASD. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a noninvasive brain stimulation, may be a promising treatment modality to safely accelerate and/or enhance treatment interventions to increase their efficacy.

Methods: This study investigates the effectiveness of FERP, emotion, and empathy treatment interventions paired with tDCS for adults with ASD. Differences in scores on the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and on a FERP test were predicted for verum tDCS when compared to sham. Verum/sham tDCS was randomly assigned in a within-subjects, double-blinded design in adults with ASD without intellectual disability.

Results: Verum tDCS significantly improved EQ scores and FERP scores for emotions that conveyed threat.

Conclusions: These results suggest the potential for increasing the efficacy of treatment interventions by pairing them with tDCS for individuals with ASD.

Author Biographies

Joan Esse Wilson, Ph.D., New Mexico State University

Dr. Joan Esse Wilson joined the Department of Communication Disorders at New Mexico State University as an Assistant Professor in fall of 2020.  She received a Ph.D. in Linguistics with a Concentration in Speech and Hearing Sciences and an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from the University of New Mexico. She completed her B.A. at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She also has more than 15 years of experience as an early intervention and school-based speech-language pathologist. Her research is focused on developing and improving interventions for social communication and social cognition for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) while utilizing a number of methods, including the use of noninvasive brain stimulation.


Michael C Trumbo, Ph.D., Sandia National Laboratory

Michael Trumbo is a Senior Member of Technical Staff in the Cognitive Science and Systems department (1463) at Sandia National Laboratories. His primary research interest is improvement of human performance, with an emphasis on operations environments. He received a Ph.D in cognitive psychology with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience from the University of New Mexico in 2016 and a BS in psychology from the University of Wisconsin – Parkside in 2008. His work at Sandia has employed a variety of methods, including brain stimulation, eye tracking, and EEG, and has centered on assessment of cognitive state and improvement of human learning and memory.

Claudia D. Tesche, Ph.D., University of New Mexico Department of Psychology

I received a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley, followed by ten years as a research scientist at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, NY. My research interests included the optimization of Superconducting Quantum Intereference Device (SQUID) magnetic sensors with applications in the foundations of quantum mechanics and the imaging of neuronal activity in the brain. I initiated a joint project between IBM and the Helsinki University of Technology to develop multichannel DC SQUID-based magnetoencephalographic (MEG) arrays. I spent eight years in Finland utilizing the first whole-scalp MEG arrays to characterize human brain dynamics, with a particular interest in frequency-domain analysis of oscillatory activity and the detection of MEG signals from deep brain structures. I joined the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico as Professor in 2000. I am presently serving as the Director of the Transcranial Stimulation Laboratory. My present research interests include MEG characterization of network dynamics in adolescents with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to enhance social skills in adults and older adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the utilization of MEG to characterize the effects of transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) on brain dynamics.


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