The neurobiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has become increasingly understood since the advent of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Initial observations of an above-average head circumference were supported by structural MRI studies that found evidence of increased total brain volume and early rapid brain overgrowth in affected individuals. Subsequent research revealed consistent abnormalities in cortical gray and white matter volume in ASDs. The structural integrity and orientation of white matter have been further elucidated via diffusion tensor imaging methods. The emergence of functional MRI techniques led to an enhanced understanding of the neural circuitry of ASDs, demonstrating areas of dysfunctional cortical activation and atypical cortical specialization. These studies have provided evidence of underconnectivity in distributed cortical networks integral to the core impairments associated with ASDs. Abnormalities in the default-mode network during the resting state have also been identified. Overall, structural and functional MRI research has generated important insights into the neurobiology of ASDs. Additional research is needed to further delineate the underlying brain basis of this constellation of disorders.
Autism; Autism spectrum disorder; Magnetic resonance imaging; Neurobiology; Review
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit characteristic cognitive and behavioral differences, but no systematic pattern of neuroanatomical differences has been consistently found. Recent neurodevelopmental models posit an abnormal early surge in subcortical white matter growth in at least some autistic children, perhaps normalizing by adulthood, but other studies report subcortical white matter deficits. To investigate the profile of these alterations in 3D, we mapped brain volumetric differences using a relatively new method, tensor-based morphometry (TBM). 3D T1-weighted brain MRIs of 24 male children with ASD (age: 9.5 years ± 3.2 SD) and 26 age-matched healthy controls (age: 10.3 ± 2.4 SD) were fluidly registered to match a common anatomical template. Autistic children had significantly enlarged frontal lobes (by 3.6% on the left and 5.1% on the right), and all other lobes of the brain were enlarged significantly, or at trend level. By analyzing the applied deformations statistically point-by-point, we detected significant gray matter volume deficits in bilateral parietal, left temporal and left occipital lobes (p=0.038, corrected), trend-level cerebral white matter volume excesses, and volume deficits in the cerebellar vermis, adjacent to volume excesses in other cerebellar regions. This profile of excesses and deficits in adjacent regions may (1) indicate impaired neuronal connectivity, resulting from aberrant myelination and/or an inflammatory process, and (2) help to understand inconsistent findings of regional brain tissue excesses and deficits in autism.
Autism; TBM; white matter; gray matter; cerebellum; morphometry
Despite early controversy, it is now accepted that a substantial proportion of children with fragile X syndrome (FXS) meets diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This change has led to an increased interest in studying the association of FXS and ASD because of the clinical consequences of their co-occurrence and the implications for a better understanding of ASD in the general population. Here, we review the current knowledge on the behavioral, neurobiological (i.e., neuroimaging), and molecular features of ASD in FXS, as well as the insight into ASD gained from mouse models of FXS. This review covers critical issues such as the selectivity of ASD in disorders associated with intellectual disability, differences between autistic features and ASD diagnosis, and the relationship between ASD and anxiety in FXS patients and animal models. While solid evidence supporting ASD in FXS as a distinctive entity is emerging, neurobiological and molecular data are still scarce. Animal model studies have not been particularly revealing about ASD in FXS either. Nevertheless, recent studies provide intriguing new leads and suggest that a better understanding of the bases of ASD will require the integration of multidisciplinary data from FXS and other genetic disorders.
Fragile X syndrome; Autism spectrum disorder; Intellectual disability; Autistic features; Social anxiety; Social withdrawal
Atypical sensory-based behaviors are a ubiquitous feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In this article, we review the neural underpinnings of sensory processing in autism by reviewing the literature on neurophysiological responses to auditory, tactile, and visual stimuli in autistic individuals. We review studies of unimodal sensory processing and multi-sensory integration that use a variety of neuroimaging techniques, including: electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). We then explore the impact of covert and overt attention on sensory processing. With additional characterization, neurophysiologic profiles of sensory processing in ASD may serve as valuable biomarkers for diagnosis and monitoring of therapeutic interventions for autism and reveal potential strategies and target brain regions for therapeutic interventions.
Characterized by a combination of abnormalities in language, social cognition, and mental flexibility, autism is not a single disorder, but a neurodevelopmental syndrome commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Several dozen ASD susceptibility genes have been identified in the past decade, collectively accounting for 10–20% of ASD cases. These findings, while demonstrating that ASD is etiologically heterogeneous, provide important clues about its pathophysiology. Diverse genetic and genomic approaches provide evidence converging on disruption of key biological pathways, many of which are also implicated in other allied neurodevelopmental disorders. Knowing the genes involved in ASD provides us with a crucial tool to probe both the specificity of ASD and the shared neurobiological and cognitive features across what are considered clinically distinct disorders, with the goal of linking gene to brain circuits to cognitive function.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) represent complex neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in reciprocal social interactions, abnormal development and use of language, and monotonously repetitive behaviors. With an estimated heritability of more than 90%, it is the most strongly genetically influenced psychiatric disorder of the young age. In spite of the complexity of this disorder, there has recently been much progress in the research on etiology, early diagnosing, and therapy of autism. Besides already advanced neuropathologic research, several new technological innovations, such as sleep functional MRI, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy imaging (1H-MRS) divulged promising breakthroughs in exploring subtle morphological and neurochemical changes in the autistic brain. This review provides a comprehensive summary of morphological and neurochemical alterations in autism known to date, as well as a short introduction to the functional research that has begun to advance in the last decade. Finally, we mention the progress in establishing new standardized diagnostic measures and its importance in early recognition and treatment of ASD.
Autism; Autism spectrum disorder
Results on grey matter (GM) structural alterations in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are inconclusive. Moreover, little is known about age effects on brain-structure abnormalities in ASD beyond childhood. Here, we aimed to examine regional GM volumes in a large sample of children, adolescents, and adults with ASD. Magnetic resonance imaging scans were obtained in 47 male ASD subjects and 51 matched healthy controls aged 8–50 years. We used whole-brain voxel-based morphometry to first assess group differences in regional GM volume across age. Moreover, taking a cross-sectional approach, group differences in age effects on regional GM volume were investigated. Compared to controls, ASD subjects showed reduced GM volumes in the anterior cingulate cortex, posterior superior temporal sulcus, and middle temporal gyrus. Investigation of group differences in age effects on regional GM volume revealed complex, region-specific alterations in ASD. While GM volumes in the amygdala, temporoparietal junction, septal nucleus and middle cingulate cortex increased in a negative quadratic fashion in both groups, data indicated that GM volume curves in ASD subjects were shifted to the left along the age axis. Moreover, while GM volume in the right precentral gyrus decreased linearly with age in ASD individuals, GM volume development in controls followed a U-shaped pattern. Based on a large sample, our voxel-based morphometry results on group differences in regional GM volumes help to resolve inconclusive findings from previous studies in ASD. Results on age-related changes of regional GM volumes suggest that ASD is characterized by complex alterations in lifetime trajectories of several brain regions that underpin social-cognitive and motor functions.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00429-012-0439-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Brain development; MRI; Voxel-based morphometry; Grey matter; Autism spectrum disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorders that are unified by impairments in reciprocal social communication and a pattern of inflexible behaviors. Recent genetic advances have resolved some of the complexity of the genetic architecture underlying ASD by identifying several genetic variants that contribute to the disorder. Different etiological pathways associated with ASD may converge through effects on common molecular mechanisms, such as synaptogenesis, neuronal motility, and axonal guidance. Recently, with more sophisticated techniques, neuroimaging, and neuropathological studies have provided some consistency of evidence that altered structure, activity, and connectivity within complex neural networks is present in ASD, compared to typically developing children. The imaging-genetics approach promises to help bridge the gap between genetic variation, resultant biological effects on the brain, and production of complex neuropsychiatric symptoms. Here, we review recent findings from the developing field of imaging-genetics applied to ASD. Studies to date have indicated that relevant risk genes are associated with alterations in circuits that mediate socio-emotional, visuo-spatial, and language processing. Longitudinal studies ideally focused on early development, in conjunction with investigation for gene–gene, and gene–environment interactions may move the promise of imaging-genetics in ASD closer to the clinical domain.
autism spectrum disorder; neuroimaging; genetics; imaging-genetics; neurodevelopment
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a complex group of neurodevelopmental disorders encompassing impairments in communication, social interactions and restricted stereotypical behaviors. Although a link between altered immune responses and ASD was first recognized nearly 40 years ago, only recently has new evidence started to shed light on the complex multifaceted relationship between immune dysfunction and behavior in ASD. Neurobiological research in ASD has highlighted pathways involved in neural development, synapse plasticity, structural brain abnormalities, cognition and behavior. At the same time, several lines of evidence point to altered immune dysfunction in ASD that directly impacts some or all these neurological processes. Extensive alterations in immune function have now been described in both children and adults with ASD, including ongoing inflammation in brain specimens, elevated pro-inflammatory cytokine profiles in the CSF and blood, increased presence of brain-specific auto-antibodies and altered immune cell function. Furthermore, these dysfunctional immune responses are associated with increased impairments in behaviors characteristic of core features of ASD, in particular, deficits in social interactions and communication. This accumulating evidence suggests that immune processes play a key role in the pathophysiology of ASD. This review will discuss the current state of our knowledge of immune dysfunction in ASD, how these findings may impact on underlying neuro-immune mechanisms and implicate potential areas where the manipulation of the immune response could have an impact on behavior and immunity in ASD.
The expression of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is highly heterogeneous, owing to the complex interactions between genes, the brain, and behavior throughout development. Here we present a model of ASD that implicates an early and initial failure to develop the specialized functions of one or more of the set of neuroanatomical structures involved in social information processing (i.e., the “social brain”). From this early and primary disruption, abnormal brain development is canalized because the individual with an ASD must develop in a highly social world without the specialized neural systems that would ordinarily allow him or her to partake in the fabric of social life, which is woven from the thread of opportunities for social reciprocity and the tools of social engagement. This brain canalization gives rise to other characteristic behavioral deficits in ASD including deficits in communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. We propose that focused efforts to explore the brain mechanisms underlying the core, pathognomic deficits in the development of mechanisms for social engagement in ASD will greatly elucidate our understanding and treatment of this complex, devastating family of neurodevelopmental disorders. In particular, developmental studies (i.e., longitudinal studies of young children with and without ASD, as well as infants at increased risk for being identified with ASD) of the neural circuitry supporting key aspects of social information processing are likely to provide important insights into the underlying components of the full-syndrome of ASD. These studies could also contribute to the identification of developmental brain endophenotypes to facilitate genetic studies. The potential for this kind of approach is illustrated via examples of functional neuroimaging research from our own laboratory implicating the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS) as a key player in the set of neural structures giving rise to ASD.
Recent genetic studies have implicated a number of candidate genes in the pathogenesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Polymorphisms of CNTNAP2 (contactin-associated like protein-2), a member of the neurexin family, have already been implicated as a susceptibility gene for autism by at least 3 separate studies. We investigated variation in white and grey matter morphology using structural MRI and diffusion tensor imaging. We compared volumetric differences in white and grey matter and fractional anisotropy values in control subjects characterised by genotype at rs7794745, a single nucleotide polymorphism in CNTNAP2. Homozygotes for the risk allele showed significant reductions in grey and white matter volume and fractional anisotropy in several regions that have already been implicated in ASD, including the cerebellum, fusiform gyrus, occipital and frontal cortices. Male homozygotes for the risk alleles showed greater reductions in grey matter in the right frontal pole and in FA in the right rostral fronto-occipital fasciculus compared to their female counterparts who showed greater reductions in FA of the anterior thalamic radiation. Thus a risk allele for autism results in significant cerebral morphological variation, despite the absence of overt symptoms or behavioural abnormalities. The results are consistent with accumulating evidence of CNTNAP2's function in neuronal development. The finding suggests the possibility that the heterogeneous manifestations of ASD can be aetiologically characterised into distinct subtypes through genetic-morphological analysis.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); Voxel-based morphometry (VBM); Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI); CNTNAP2; Autism; Endophenotype
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is clinically defined by abnormalities in reciprocal social and communicative behaviors and an inflexible adherence to routinised patterns of thought and behavior. Laboratory studies repeatedly demonstrate that autistic individuals experience difficulties in recognizing and understanding the emotional expressions of others and naturalistic observations show that they use such expressions infrequently and inappropriately to regulate social exchanges. Dominant theories attribute this facet of the ASD phenotype to abnormalities in a social brain network that mediates social-motivational and social-cognitive processes such as face processing, mental state understanding, and empathy. Such theories imply that only emotion related processes relevant to social cognition are compromised in ASD but accumulating evidence suggests that the disorder may be characterized by more widespread anomalies in the domain of emotions. In this review I summarize the relevant literature and argue that the social-emotional characteristics of ASD may be better understood in terms of a disruption in the domain-general interplay between emotion and cognition. More specifically I will suggest that ASD is the developmental consequence of early emerging anomalies in how emotional responses to the environment modulate a wide range of cognitive processes including those that are relevant to navigating the social world.
autism; emotion; social-motivation; social brain; social cognition
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by aberrant neurodevelopment. Although the ASD brain undergoes precocious growth followed by decelerated maturation during early postnatal period of childhood, the neuroimaging approach has not been empirically applied to investigate how the ASD brain develops during adolescence.
We enrolled 25 male adolescents with high functioning ASD and 25 typically developing controls for voxel-based morphometric analysis of structural magnetic resonance image. Results indicate that there is an imbalance of regional gray matter volumes and concentrations along with no global brain enlargement in adolescents with high functioning ASD relative to controls. Notably, the right inferior parietal lobule, a role in social cognition, have a significant interaction of age by groups as indicated by absence of an age-related gain of regional gray matter volume and concentration for neurodevelopmental maturation during adolescence.
The findings indicate the neural correlates of social cognition exhibits aberrant neurodevelopment during adolescence in ASD, which may cast some light on the brain growth dysregulation hypothesis. The period of abnormal brain growth during adolescence may be characteristic of ASD. Age effects must be taken into account while measures of structural neuroimaging have been clinically put forward as potential phenotypes for ASD.
Recently, there has been increased focus on movement and sensory abnormalities in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This has come from research demonstrating cortical and cerebellar differences in autism, with suggestion of early cerebellar dysfunction. As evidence for an extended profile of ASD grows, there are vast implications for treatment and therapy for individuals with autism. Persons with autism are often provided behavioral or cognitive strategies for navigating their environment; however, these strategies do not consider differences in motor functioning. One accommodation that has not yet been explored in the literature is the use of auditory rhythmic cueing to improve motor functioning in ASD. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the potential impact of auditory rhythmic cueing for motor functioning in persons with ASD. To this effect, we review research on rhythm in motor rehabilitation, draw parallels to motor dysfunction in ASD, and propose a rationale for how rhythmic input can improve sensorimotor functioning, thereby allowing individuals with autism to demonstrate their full cognitive, behavioral, social, and communicative potential.
autism spectrum disorders; synchronization; movement regulation; neurologic music therapy; rhythm
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) represent a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by a core set of social-communicative and behavioral impairments. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, acting primarily via the GABA receptors (GABR). Multiple lines of evidence, including altered GABA and GABA receptor expression in autistic patients, indicate that the GABAergic system may be involved in the etiology of autism.
As copy number variations (CNVs), particularly rare and de novo CNVs, have now been implicated in ASD risk, we examined the GABA receptors and genes in related pathways for structural variation that may be associated with autism. We further extended our candidate gene set to include 19 genes and regions that had either been directly implicated in the autism literature or were directly related (via function or ancestry) to these primary candidates. For the high resolution CNV screen we employed custom-designed 244 k comparative genomic hybridization (CGH) arrays. Collectively, our probes spanned a total of 11 Mb of GABA-related and additional candidate regions with a density of approximately one probe every 200 nucleotides, allowing a theoretical resolution for detection of CNVs of approximately 1 kb or greater on average. One hundred and sixty-eight autism cases and 149 control individuals were screened for structural variants. Prioritized CNV events were confirmed using quantitative PCR, and confirmed loci were evaluated on an additional set of 170 cases and 170 control individuals that were not included in the original discovery set. Loci that remained interesting were subsequently screened via quantitative PCR on an additional set of 755 cases and 1,809 unaffected family members.
Results include rare deletions in autistic individuals at JAKMIP1, NRXN1, Neuroligin4Y, OXTR, and ABAT. Common insertion/deletion polymorphisms were detected at several loci, including GABBR2 and NRXN3. Overall, statistically significant enrichment in affected vs. unaffected individuals was observed for NRXN1 deletions.
These results provide additional support for the role of rare structural variation in ASD.
AUTISM; CGH; CNV; GABA; NRXN1
Disruption of structural and functional neural connectivity has been widely reported in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but there is a striking lack of research attempting to integrate analysis of functional and structural connectivity in the same study population, an approach that may provide key insights into the specific neurobiological underpinnings of altered functional connectivity in autism. The aims of this study were (1) to determine whether functional connectivity abnormalities were associated with structural abnormalities of white matter (WM) in ASD and (2) to examine the relationships between aberrant neural connectivity and behavior in ASD. Twenty-two individuals with ASD and 22 age, IQ-matched controls completed a high-angular-resolution diffusion MRI scan. Structural connectivity was analysed using constrained spherical deconvolution (CSD) based tractography. Regions for tractography were generated from the results of a previous study, in which 10 pairs of brain regions showed abnormal functional connectivity during visuospatial processing in ASD. WM tracts directly connected 5 of the 10 region pairs that showed abnormal functional connectivity; linking a region in the left occipital lobe (left BA19) and five paired regions: left caudate head, left caudate body, left uncus, left thalamus, and left cuneus. Measures of WM microstructural organization were extracted from these tracts. Fractional anisotropy (FA) reductions in the ASD group relative to controls were significant for WM connecting left BA19 to left caudate head and left BA19 to left thalamus. Using a multimodal imaging approach, this study has revealed aberrant WM microstructure in tracts that directly connect brain regions that are abnormally functionally connected in ASD. These results provide novel evidence to suggest that structural brain pathology may contribute (1) to abnormal functional connectivity and (2) to atypical visuospatial processing in ASD.
neuroimaging; autism spectrum disorders; functional connectivity; diffusion tractography; constrained spherical deconvolution; visuospatial processing; structural connectivity; mental rotation
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated with both (i) post-mortem and neuroimaging evidence of abnormal cortical development, and (ii) altered signalling in Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) pathways - which regulate neuroproliferative and neuroplastic processes. In healthy controls genotype at a single nucleotide polymorphism that alters BDNF signalling (Val66met) has been related to regional cortical volume. It is not known however if this influence on brain development is intact in ASD. Therefore we compared the relationship between genotype and cortical anatomy (as measured using in vivo Magnetic Resonance Imaging) in 41 people with ASD and 30 healthy controls. We measured cortical volume, and its two sole determinants - cortical thickness and surface area - which reflect differing neurodevelopmental processes. We found “Group-by-Genotype” interactions for cortical volume in medial (caudal anterior cingulate, posterior cingulate) and lateral (rostral middle, lateral orbitofrontal, pars orbitalis and pars triangularis) frontal cortices. Furthermore, within (only) these regions “Group-by-Genotype” interactions were also found for surface area. No effects were found for cortical thickness in any region. Our preliminary findings suggest that people with ASD have differences from controls in the relationship between BDNF val66met genotype and regional (especially frontal) cortical volume and surface area, but not cortical thickness. Therefore alterations in the relationship between BDNF val66met genotype and surface area in ASD may drive the findings for volume. If correct, this suggests ASD is associated with a distorted relationship between BDNF val66met genotype and the determinants of regional cortical surface area – gyrification and/or sulcal positioning.
Autism; Brain; Brain derived neurotrophic factor; MRI
Autism-Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are thought to be associated with abnormalities in neural connectivity at both the global and local levels. Quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG) is a non-invasive technique that allows a highly precise measurement of brain function and connectivity. This review encompasses the key findings of QEEG application in subjects with ASD, in order to assess the relevance of this approach in characterizing brain function and clustering phenotypes. QEEG studies evaluating both the spontaneous brain activity and brain signals under controlled experimental stimuli were examined. Despite conflicting results, literature analysis suggests that QEEG features are sensitive to modification in neuronal regulation dysfunction which characterize autistic brain. QEEG may therefore help in detecting regions of altered brain function and connectivity abnormalities, in linking behavior with brain activity, and subgrouping affected individuals within the wide heterogeneity of ASD. The use of advanced techniques for the increase of the specificity and of spatial localization could allow finding distinctive patterns of QEEG abnormalities in ASD subjects, paving the way for the development of tailored intervention strategies.
autism-spectrum disorder; quantitative electroencephalography; coherence; asymmetry; non-linear techniques
Models of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as neural dysconnection syndromes have been predominantly supported by examinations of abnormalities in cortico-cortical networks in adults with autism. A broader body of research implicates subcortical structures, particularly the striatum, in the physiopathology of autism. Resting state fMRI has revealed detailed maps of striatal circuitry in healthy and psychiatric populations, and vividly captured maturational changes in striatal circuitry during typical development.
Using resting state fMRI, we examined striatal functional connectivity in 20 children with ASD and 20 typically developing children (TDC) between the age of 7.6 and 13.5 years. Whole-brain voxel-wise statistical maps quantified within-group striatal FC and between-group differences for three caudate and three putamen seeds, for each hemisphere.
Children with ASD mostly exhibited prominent patterns of ectopic striatal functional connectivity (i.e., functional connectivity present in ASD but not in TDC), with increased functional connectivity between nearly all striatal subregions and heteromodal associative and limbic cortex previously implicated in the physiopathology of ASD (e.g., insular and right superior temporal gyrus). Additionally, we found striatal functional hyperconnectivity with the pons, thus expanding the scope of functional alterations implicated in ASD. Secondary analyses revealed ASD-related hyperconnectivity between the pons and insular cortex.
Examination of functional connectivity of striatal networks in children with ASD revealed abnormalities in circuits involving early developing areas such as the brainstem and insula, with a pattern of increased functional connectivity in ectopic circuits that likely reflects developmental derangement rather than immaturity of functional circuits.
Autism; Striatum; Functional Connectivity; Brainstem; Insula; Development
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by varying deficits in social interactions, communication, and learning, as well as stereotypic behaviors. Despite the significant increase in ASD, there are few if any clues for its pathogenesis, hampering early detection or treatment. Premature babies are also more vulnerable to infections and inflammation leading to neurodevelopmental problems and higher risk of developing ASD. Many autism “susceptibility” genes have been identified, but “environmental” factors appear to play a significant role. Increasing evidence suggests that there are different ASD endophenotypes.
We review relevant literature suggesting in utero inflammation can lead to preterm labor, while insufficient development of the gut-blood–brain barriers could permit exposure to potential neurotoxins. This risk apparently may increase in parents with “allergic” or autoimmune problems during gestation, or if they had been exposed to stressors. The presence of circulating auto-antibodies against fetal brain proteins in mothers is associated with higher risk of autism and suggests disruption of the blood–brain-barrier (BBB). A number of papers have reported increased brain expression or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, especially TNF, which is preformed in mast cells. Recent evidence also indicates increased serum levels of the pro-inflammatory mast cell trigger neurotensin (NT), and of extracellular mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is immunogenic. Gene mutations of phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN), the negative regulator of the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), have been linked to higher risk of autism, but also to increased proliferation and function of mast cells.
Premature birth and susceptibility genes may make infants more vulnerable to allergic, environmental, infectious, or stress-related triggers that could stimulate mast cell release of pro-inflammatory and neurotoxic molecules, thus contributing to brain inflammation and ASD pathogenesis, at least in an endophenotype of ASD patients.
Allergy; Autism; Brain; Inflammation; Mast cells; Prematurity; Stress
Most behavioral training regimens in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) rely on reward-based reinforcement strategies. Although proven to significantly increase both cognitive and social outcomes and successfully reduce aberrant behaviors, this approach fails to benefit a substantial number of affected individuals. Given the enormous amount of clinical and financial resources devoted to behavioral interventions, there is a surprisingly large gap in our knowledge of the basic reward mechanisms of learning in ASD. Understanding the mechanisms for reward responsiveness and reinforcement-based learning is urgently needed to better inform modifications that might improve current treatments. The fundamental goal of this review is to present a fine-grained literature analysis of reward function in ASD with reference to a validated neurobiological model of reward: the ‘wanting’/’liking’ framework. Despite some inconsistencies within the available literature, the evaluation across three converging sets of neurobiological data (neuroimaging, electrophysiological recordings, and neurochemical measures) reveals good evidence for disrupted reward-seeking tendencies in ASD, particularly in social contexts. This is most likely caused by dysfunction of the dopaminergic–oxytocinergic ‘wanting’ circuitry, including the ventral striatum, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Such a conclusion is consistent with predictions derived from diagnostic criteria concerning the core social phenotype of ASD, which emphasize difficulties with spontaneous self-initiated seeking of social encounters (that is, social motivation). Existing studies suggest that social ‘wanting’ tendencies vary considerably between individuals with ASD, and that the degree of social motivation is both malleable and predictive of intervention response. Although the topic of reward responsiveness in ASD is very new, with much research still needed, the current data clearly point towards problems with incentive-based motivation and learning, with clear and important implications for treatment. Given the reliance of behavioral interventions on reinforcement-based learning principles, we believe that a systematic focus on the integrity of the reward system in ASD promises to yield many important clues, both to the underlying mechanisms causing ASD and to enhancing the efficacy of existing and new interventions.
Autism spectrum disorders; Reward; Social motivation; Ventral striatum; Ventromedial prefrontal cortex; Amygdala; Dopamine; Oxytocin; Opioids; Treatment
Magnetic-resonance (MR) examination provides a powerful tool for investigating brain structural changes in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We review recent advances in the understanding of structural-MR correlates of ASD. We summarize findings from studies based on voxel-based morphometry, surface-based morphometry, and tensor-based morphometry, and diffusion-tensor imaging. Finally, we discuss diagnostic models of ASD, based on MR-derived features.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders with a prevalence of nearly 1:100. Structural imaging studies point to disruptions in multiple brain areas, yet the precise neuroanatomical nature of these disruptions remains unclear. Characterization of brain structural differences in children with ASD is critical for development of biomarkers that may eventually be used to improve diagnosis and monitor response to treatment.
We use voxel-based morphometry (VBM) along with a novel multivariate pattern analysis (MPA) approach and searchlight algorithm to classify structural magnetic resonance imaging data acquired from 24 children and adolescents with autism and 24 age-, gender-, and IQ-matched neurotypical participants.
Despite modest VBM differences, MPA revealed that the groups could be distinguished with accuracies of around 90% based on gray matter in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), medial prefrontal cortex, and bilateral medial temporal lobes, all regions within the default mode network (DMN). Abnormalities in the PCC were associated with impaired ADI-R communication scores. Gray matter in additional prefrontal, lateral temporal, and subcortical structures also discriminated between the two groups with accuracies between 81-90%. White matter in the inferior fronto-occipital and superior longitudinal fasciculi, and the genu and splenium of the corpus callosum, achieved up to 85% classification accuracy.
Multiple brain regions, including those belonging to the DMN, exhibit aberrant structural organization in children with autism. Brain-based biomarkers derived from structural MRI data may eventually contribute to identification of the neuroanatomical basis of symptom heterogeneity and to the development of more targeted early intervention.
voxel-based morphometry; autism spectrum disorders; default mode network; multivariate pattern analysis; support vector machine; biomarker
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder in childhood, which affects more than 5% of the population worldwide. ADHD is characterized by developmentally inappropriate behaviors of inattention, and/or impulsivity and hyperactivity. These behavioral manifestations contribute to diminished academic, occupational and social functioning, and have neurobiological bases. Neuronal deficits, especially in the attention and executive function processing networks, have been implicated in both children and adults with ADHD by using sophisticated structural and functional neuroimaging approaches. These structural and functional abnormalities in the brain networks have been associated with the impaired cognitive, affective, and motor behaviors seen in the disorder. The goal of this review is to summarize and integrate emerging themes from the existing neuroimaging connectivity studies based on advanced imaging techniques, applied in data of structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional MRI (fMRI), diffusion tensor imaging, electroencephalography and event related potential; and to discuss the results of these studies when considering future directions for understanding pathophysiological mechanisms and developmental trajectories of the behavioral manifestations in ADHD. We conclude this review by suggesting that future research should put more effort on understanding the roles of the subcortical structures and their structural/functional pathways in ADHD.
ADHD; brain networks; structural MRI; fMRI; DTI; EEG/ERP
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by inflexible and repetitive behaviour. Response monitoring involves evaluating the consequences of behaviour and making adjustments to optimize outcomes. Deficiencies in this function, and abnormalities in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) on which it relies, have been reported as contributing factors to autistic disorders. We investigated whether ACC structure and function during response monitoring were associated with repetitive behaviour in ASD. We compared ACC activation to correct and erroneous antisaccades using rapid presentation event-related functional MRI in 14 control and ten ASD participants. Because response monitoring is the product of coordinated activity in ACC networks, we also examined the microstructural integrity of the white matter (WM) underlying this brain region using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures of fractional anisotropy (FA) in 12 control and 12 adult ASD participants. ACC activation and FA were examined in relation to Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised ratings of restricted and repetitive behaviour. Relative to controls, ASD participants: (i) made more antisaccade errors and responded more quickly on correct trials; (ii) showed reduced discrimination between error and correct responses in rostral ACC (rACC), which was primarily due to (iii) abnormally increased activation on correct trials and (iv) showed reduced FA in WM underlying ACC. Finally, in ASD (v) increased activation on correct trials and reduced FA in rACC WM were related to higher ratings of repetitive behaviour. These findings demonstrate functional and structural abnormalities of the ACC in ASD that may contribute to repetitive behaviour. rACC activity following errors is thought to reflect affective appraisal of the error. Thus, the hyperactive rACC response to correct trials can be interpreted as a misleading affective signal that something is awry, which may trigger repetitive attempts at correction. Another possible consequence of reduced affective discrimination between error and correct responses is that it might interfere with the reinforcement of responses that optimize outcomes. Furthermore, dysconnection of the ACC, as suggested by reduced FA, to regions involved in behavioural control might impair on-line modulations of response speed to optimize performance (i.e. speed-accuracy trade-off) and increase error likelihood. These findings suggest that in ASD, structural and functional abnormalities of the ACC compromise response monitoring and thereby contribute to behaviour that is rigid and repetitive rather than flexible and responsive to contingencies. Illuminating the mechanisms and clinical significance of abnormal response monitoring in ASD represents a fruitful avenue for further research.
autism; anterior cingulate cortex; response monitoring; functional MRI; diffusion tensor imaging