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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a set of complex developmental disabilities defined by impairment in social interaction and communication, as well as by restricted interests or repetitive behaviors. Neuroimaging studies have substantially advanced our understanding of the neural mechanisms that underlie the core symptoms of ASDs. Nevertheless, a number of challenges still remain in the application of neuroimaging techniques to the study of ASDs. We review three major conceptual and methodological challenges that complicate the interpretation of findings from neuroimaging studies in ASDs, and that future imaging studies should address through improved designs. These include: (1) identification and implementation of tasks that more specifically target the neural processes of interest, while avoiding the confusion that the symptoms of ASD may impose on both the performance of the task and the detection of brain activations; (2) the inconsistency that disease heterogeneity in persons with ASD can generate on research findings, particularly heterogeneity of symptoms, symptom severity, differences in IQ, total brain volume, and psychiatric comorbidity; and (3) the problems with interpretation of findings from cross-sectional studies of persons with ASD across differing age groups. Failure to address these challenges will continue to hinder our ability to distinguish findings that outline the causes of ASDs from brain processes that represent downstream or compensatory responses to the presence of the disease. Here we propose strategies to address these issues: 1) the use of simple and elementary tasks, that are easier to understand for autistic subjects; 2) the scanning of a more homogenous group of persons with ASDs, preferably at younger age; 3) the performance of longitudinal studies, that may provide more straight forward and reliable results. We believe that this would allow for a better understanding of both the central pathogenic processes and the compensatory responses in the brain of persons suffering from ASDs.
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 characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours. The severity of these characteristics is posited to lie on a continuum that extends into the general population. Brain substrates underlying ASD have been investigated through functional neuroimaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). However, fMRI has methodological constraints for studying brain mechanisms during social interactions (for example, noise, lying on a gantry during the procedure, etc.). In this study, we investigated whether variations in autism spectrum traits are associated with changes in patterns of brain activation in typically developed adults. We used near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), a recently developed functional neuroimaging technique that uses near-infrared light, to monitor brain activation in a natural setting that is suitable for studying brain functions during social interactions.
We monitored regional cerebral blood volume changes using a 52-channel NIRS apparatus over the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and superior temporal sulcus (STS), 2 areas implicated in social cognition and the pathology of ASD, in 28 typically developed participants (14 male and 14 female) during face-to-face conversations. This task was designed to resemble a realistic social situation. We examined the correlations of these changes with autistic traits assessed using the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ).
Both the PFC and STS were significantly activated during face-to-face conversations. AQ scores were negatively correlated with regional cerebral blood volume increases in the left STS during face-to-face conversations, especially in males.
Our results demonstrate successful monitoring of brain function during realistic social interactions by NIRS as well as lesser brain activation in the left STS during face-to-face conversations in typically developed participants with higher levels of autistic traits.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) comprise a complex set of related developmental disorders that are characterized by impairments in communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors. Impairments in sensory processing are also extremely common. The prevalence of ASDs is increasing and is currently estimated to affect 1 in 150 children. ASDs are considered to be a major health and educational problem, affecting many areas of daily living, including eating. Children with ASDs are often described as picky or selective eaters. This paper provides a comprehensive narrative review of the empirical literature over the last 25 years on food selectivity and nutritional adequacy in children with ASDs. The possible contributions of sensory factors, such as sensory sensitivity, to food selectivity are discussed. The need for an interdisciplinary approach to managing atypical eating patterns in children with ASD is highlighted.
autism; food selectivity; sensory sensitivity
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
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 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
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect approximately 1 in 150 children across the U.S., and are characterized by abnormal social actions, language difficulties, repetitive or restrictive behaviors, and special interests. ASD include autism (autistic disorder), Asperger syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS or atypical autism). High-functioning individuals may communicate with moderate-to-high language skills, although difficulties in social skills may result in communication deficits. Low-functioning individuals may have severe deficiencies in language, resulting in poor communication between the individual and others. Behavioral intervention programs have been developed for ASD, and are frequently adjusted to accommodate specific individual needs. Many of these programs are school-based and aim to support the child in the development of their skills, for use outside the classroom with family and friends. Strides are being made in understanding the factors contributing to the development of ASD, particularly the genetic contributions that may underlie these disorders. Mutant mouse models provide powerful research tools to investigate the genetic factors associated with ASD and its co-morbid disorders. In support, the BTBR T+tf/J mouse strain incorporates ASD-like social and communication deficits and high levels of repetitive behaviors. This commentary briefly reviews the reciprocal relationship between observations made during evidence-based behavioral interventions of high- versus low-functioning children with ASD and the accumulating body of research in autism, including animal studies and basic research models. This reciprocity is one of the hallmarks of the scientific method, such that research may inform behavioral treatments, and observations made during treatment may inform subsequent research.
autism spectrum disorders; social; communication; language; gender differences; behavior modeling; Picture Exchange Communication System; mice; genetics; BTBR; Center for Autism and Related Disabilities; education programs; translational research
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.
Mutations in MECP2, encoding methyl CpG binding protein 2 (MeCP2), cause most cases of Rett syndrome (RTT), an X-linked neurodevelopmental disorder. Both RTT and autism are “pervasive developmental disorders” and share a loss of social, cognitive and language skills and a gain in repetitive stereotyped behavior, following apparently normal perinatal development. Although MECP2 coding mutations are a rare cause of autism, MeCP2 expression defects were previously found in autism brain. To further study the role of MeCP2 in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), we determined the frequency of MeCP2 expression defects in brain samples from autism and other ASDs. We also tested the hypotheses that MECP2 promoter mutations or aberrant promoter methylation correlate with reduced expression in cases of idiopathic autism. MeCP2 immunofluorescence in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders was quantified by laser scanning cytometry and compared with control postmortem cerebral cortex samples on a large tissue microarray. A significant reduction in MeCP2 expression compared to age-matched controls was found in 11/14 autism (79%), 9/9 RTT (100%), 4/4 Angelman syndrome (100%), 3/4 Prader-Willi syndrome (75%), 3/5 Down syndrome (60%), and 2/2 attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (100%) frontal cortex samples. One autism female was heterozygous for a rare MECP2 promoter variant that correlated with reduced MeCP2 expression. A more frequent occurrence was significantly increased MECP2 promoter methylation in autism male frontal cortex compared to controls. Furthermore, percent promoter methylation of MECP2 significantly correlated with reduced MeCP2 protein expression. These results suggest that both genetic and epigenetic defects lead to reduced MeCP2 expression and may be important in the complex etiology of autism.
autism; DNA methylation; Rett syndrome; neurodevelopmental disorders; MeCP2
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are typically characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, narrow interests, and repetitive behaviors. The heterogeneity in the severity of these characteristics across individuals with ASD has led some researchers to suggest that these disorders form a continuum which extends into the general, or “typical,” population, and there is growing evidence that the extent to which typical adults display autistic traits, as measured using the autism-spectrum quotient (AQ), predicts performance on behavioral tasks that are impaired in ASD. Here, we show that variation in autism spectrum traits is related to cortical structure and function within the typical population. Voxel-based morphometry showed that increased AQ scores were associated with decreased white matter volume in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), a region important in processing socially relevant stimuli and associated with structural and functional impairments in ASD. In addition, AQ was correlated with the extent of cortical deactivation of an adjacent area of pSTS during a Stroop task relative to rest, reflecting variation in resting state function. The results provide evidence that autism spectrum characteristics are reflected in neural structure and function across the typical (non-ASD) population.
autism; fMRI; resting state; voxel-based morphometry
A variety of features of autism can be simulated in rodents, including the core behavioral hallmarks of stereotyped and repetitive behaviors, and deficits in social interaction and communication. Other behaviors frequently found in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) such as neophobia, enhanced anxiety, abnormal pain sensitivity and eye blink conditioning, disturbed sleep patterns, seizures, and deficits in sensorimotor gating are also present in some of the animal models. Neuropathology and some characteristic neurochemical changes that are frequently seen in autism, as well as alterations in the immune status in the brain and periphery are also found in some of the models. Several known environmental risk factors for autism have been successfully established in rodents, including maternal infection and maternal valproate administration. Also under investigation are a number of mouse models based on genetic variants associated with autism or on syndromic disorders with autistic features. This review briefly summarizes recent developments in this field, highlighting models with face and/or construct validity, and noting the potential for investigation of pathogenesis and early progress towards clinical testing of potential therapeutics. Wherever possible, reference is made to reviews rather than primary articles.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by language and communication impairments, social impairments, and repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. Previous studies of semantic functions have found differences in semantic processing and differences in the activation of the language network in adults with ASD compared to controls. The goal of this study is to examine semantic functions in adolescents with ASD compared to typically developing adolescents. We utilized fMRI with a reading version of a response-naming task to investigate activation in 12 right-handed adolescent boys with ASD and 12 typically developing boys. Both groups performed the task at ceiling levels. Boys with ASD had significantly stronger activation than controls in Broca's area, which was less left lateralized in ASD individuals. Controls had a significant correlation between frontal and temporal language area activation in the left hemisphere, whereas ASD adolescents did not. Direct group comparisons revealed additional regions activated in the ASD group relative to the control group. These results suggest differences in semantic organization, approaches to the semantic task, or efficiency in semantic processing in ASD adolescents relative to typically developing adolescents.
Autistic disorder; Functional MRI; Broca's area; Wernicke's area; Semantics; Asymmetry
Research is increasingly linking autism spectrum disorders and other neurodevelopmental disorders to synaptic abnormalities (“synaptopathies”). PSD-95 (postsynaptic density-95, DLG4) orchestrates protein-protein interactions at excitatory synapses and is a major functional bridge interconnecting a neurexin-neuroligin-SHANK pathway implicated in autism spectrum disorders.
The authors characterized behavioral, dendritic, and molecular phenotypic abnormalities relevant to autism spectrum disorders in mice with PSD-95 deletion (Dlg4−/−). The data from mice led to the identification of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in human DLG4 and the examination of associations between these variants and neural signatures of Williams’ syndrome in a normal population, using functional and structural neuroimaging.
Dlg4−/− showed increased repetitive behaviors, abnormal communication and social behaviors, impaired motor coordination, and increased stress reactivity and anxiety-related responses. Dlg4−/− had subtle dysmorphology of amygdala dendritic spines and altered forebrain expression of various synaptic genes, including Cyln2, which regulates cytoskeletal dynamics and is a candidate gene for Williams’ syndrome. A significant association was observed between variations in two human DLG4 SNPs and reduced intraparietal sulcus volume and abnormal cortico-amygdala coupling, both of which characterize Williams’ syndrome.
These findings demonstrate that Dlg4 gene disruption in mice produces a complex range of behavioral and molecular abnormalities relevant to autism spectrum disorders and Williams’ syndrome. The study provides an initial link between human DLG4 gene variation and key neural endophenotypes of Williams’ syndrome and perhaps cortico-amygdala regulation of emotional and social processes more generally.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are early onset neurodevelopmental syndromes typified by impairments in reciprocal social interaction and communication, accompanied by restricted and repetitive behaviors. While rare and especially de novo genetic variation are known to affect liability, whether common genetic polymorphism plays a substantial role is an open question and the relative contribution of genes and environment is contentious. It is probable that the relative contributions of rare and common variation, as well as environment, differs between ASD families having only a single affected individual (simplex) versus multiplex families who have two or more affected individuals.
By using quantitative genetics techniques and the contrast of ASD subjects to controls, we estimate what portion of liability can be explained by additive genetic effects, known as narrow-sense heritability. We evaluate relatives of ASD subjects using the same methods to evaluate the assumptions of the additive model and partition families by simplex/multiplex status to determine how heritability changes with status.
By analyzing common variation throughout the genome, we show that common genetic polymorphism exerts substantial additive genetic effects on ASD liability and that simplex/multiplex family status has an impact on the identified composition of that risk. As a fraction of the total variation in liability, the estimated narrow-sense heritability exceeds 60% for ASD individuals from multiplex families and is approximately 40% for simplex families. By analyzing parents, unaffected siblings and alleles not transmitted from parents to their affected children, we conclude that the data for simplex ASD families follow the expectation for additive models closely. The data from multiplex families deviate somewhat from an additive model, possibly due to parental assortative mating.
Our results, when viewed in the context of results from genome-wide association studies, demonstrate that a myriad of common variants of very small effect impacts ASD liability.
Narrow-sense heritability; Multiplex; Simplex; Quantitative genetics