Research shows that dysfunctional emotional processing found in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be related to impairment of interoception. Interoception refers to the process of sensing, integrating, and interpreting signals originated inside the body, and is crucial in maintaining homeostasis thus of evolutionary significance. On the other hand, studies have shown that people with ASD are impaired in empathy (i.e., the ability to sense and share the feelings of others), self-related functions, and around 50% of them also suffer from various degrees of alexithymia (i.e., difficulties in identifying and describing one’s own emotions). However, since the roles of alexithymia and empathy on interoceptive sensibility and autistic traits have not been clarified, notable limitations of previous studies include that the relationship between autistic features and interoception was examined without accounting for the effects of social-emotional traits such as alexithymia.
In order to address such an issue, Dr. Raymond Chan‘’s team from the Neuropsychology and Applied Cognitive Neuroscience (NACN) Laboratory, CAS key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology has conducted a study utilizing network analysis to clarify the roles of empathy and alexithymia on interoceptive sensibility and autistic traits. Self-report scales were administered to 1360 healthy volunteers. Network analysis was used to analyze the relationship between different traits variables. Variables are treated as "nodes", where interactions between variables are represented by "edges" linking various nodes. An edge represents the relationship between two nodes after controlling for the effect of all other nodes. The nodes and edges together form a network that visually displays the overall structure of the system. Their findings revealed a network connecting autistic traits to interoceptive sensibility, empathy, alexithymia and self-awareness, with reasonable stability and test-retest consistency. Notably, the node representing alexithymia locates in the central of the network, with the highest centrality and expected influence.
Taken together, the research suggests that alexithymia may serve as an important node bridging interoceptive deficits, self-awareness, and empathic performance in individuals with Autistic traits. It highlights the importance of co-morbidity of alexithymia in clinical cases with ASD. Future study should take alexithymia into consideration for the study of interoceptive impairments and social deficits in ASD.
This study was supported by a grant form National Science Foundation China and the CAS Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology.
The paper is now available online from European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience on May 13 2021.
Yang, H. X., Hu, H. X., Zhang, Y. J., Wang, Y., Lui, S. S. Y., Chan, R. C. K.* (2021). A network analysis of interoception, self-awareness, empathy, alexithymia, and autistic traits. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience.
Institute of Psychology
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Beijing 100101, China.