A number of neurophysiological characteristics demonstrated in autism share the common theme of under-connectivity in the cerebral cortex. One of the prominent theories of the cause of the dysfunctional connectivity in autism is based on distinct anatomical structures that differ between the autistic and the neurotypical cortex. The functional minicolumn has been identified as occupying a much smaller space in the cortex of people with autism as compared to neurotypical controls, and this aberration in architecture has been proposed to lead to under-connectivity at the local or within-macrocolumn level, which in turn leads to dysfunctional connectivity globally across cortical areas in persons with autism. Numerous reports have indicated reduced synchronization of activity on a large scale in the brains of people with autism. We hypothesized that if the larger-scale aberrant dynamics in autism were due – at least in part – to a widespread propagation of the errors introduced at the level of local connectivity between minicolumns, then aberrations in local functional connectivity should also be detectable in autism.
Recently, we reported a method for measuring the perceptual changes that are impacted by the presence of synchronized conditioning stimuli on the skin. In this study, the temporal order judgment (TOJ) and temporal discriminative threshold (TDT) of 10 adult autism subjects were assessed both in the absence and presence of synchronized conditioning vibrotactile stimuli.
Our previous report demonstrated that delivering simultaneous and synchronized vibrotactile stimuli to near-adjacent skin sites decreases a subject's ability to determine temporal order by 3 to 4-fold. However, results presented in this report show that subjects with autism do not demonstrate such decreased capacity in temporal order judgment (TOJ) in the presence of synchronized conditioning stimuli, although these same subjects do have TOJ thresholds well above that of controls.
It is speculated that the differences in sensory perceptual capacities in the presence of synchronized conditioning stimuli in autism are due to local under-connectivity in cortex at the minicolumnar organizational level, and that the above-average TOJ thresholds in autism could be attributed to structural differences that have been observed in the frontostrial system of this population.