Individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit lifelong abnormalities in the adaptive allocation of visual attention. The ubiquitous nature of attentional impairments in ASD has led some authors to hypothesize that atypical attentional modulation may be a factor in the development of higher-level sociocommunicative deficits.
Participants were 20 children with ASD and 20 age- and Nonverbal IQ-matched typically developing (TD) children. We used the Attention Network Test (ANT) to investigate the efficiency and independence of three discrete attentional networks: alerting, orienting, and executive control. Additionally, we sought to investigate the relationship between each attentional network and measures of sociocommunicative symptom severity in children with ASD.
Results indicate that the orienting, but not alerting or executive control, networks may be impaired in children with ASD. In contrast to TD children, correlational analyses suggest that the alerting and executive control networks may not function as independently in children with ASD. Additionally, an association was found between the alerting network and social impairment and between the executive control network and IQ in children with ASD.
The results provide further evidence of an impairment in the visuospatial orienting network in ASD and suggest that there may be greater interdependence of alerting and executive control networks in ASD. Furthermore, decreased ability to efficiently modulate levels of alertness was related to increased sociocommunicative deficits, suggesting that domain-general attentional function may be associated with ASD symptomatology.
Autism; reaction time; visual attention; alerting; orienting; executive control
Attentional dysfunction is one of the most consistent findings in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, the significance of such findings for the pathophysiology of autism is unclear. In this study, we investigated cellular neurochemistry with proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy imaging (1H-MRS) in brain regions associated with networks subserving alerting, orienting, and executive control of attention in patients with ASD. Concentrations of cerebral N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), creatinine + phosphocreatinine, choline-containing compounds, myo-inositol (Ins) and glutamate + glutamine (Glx) were determined by 3 T 1H-MRS examinations in 14 high-functioning medication-free adults with a diagnosis of ASD and 14 age- and IQ-matched healthy controls (HC) in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), thalamus, temporoparietal junction (TPJ), and areas near or along the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). Compared to HC group, the ASD group showed significantly lower Glx concentrations in right ACC and reduced Ins in left TPJ. This study provides evidence of abnormalities in neurotransmission related to networks subserving executive control and alerting of attention, functions which have been previously implicated in ASD pathogenesis.
autism; spectroscopy; glutamate; anterior cingulate cortex; intraparietal sulcus; myo-inositol
Abnormalities in frontostriatal circuitry potentially underlie the two core deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); social interaction and communication difficulties and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Whilst a few studies have examined connectivity within this circuitry in ASD, no previous study has examined both functional and structural connectivity within the same population. The present study provides the first exploration of both functional and structural frontostriatal connectivity in ASD. Twenty-eight right-handed Caucasian male ASD (17.28 ± 3.57 years) and 27 right-handed male, age and IQ matched controls (17.15 ± 3.64 years) took part in the study. Resting state functional connectivity was carried out on 21 ASD and control participants, and tractography was carried out on 22 ASD and 24 control participants, after excluding subjects for excessive motion and poor data quality. Functional connectivity analysis was carried out between the frontal cortex and striatum after which tractography was performed between regions that showed significant group differences in functional connectivity. The ASD group showed increased functional connectivity between regions in the frontal cortex [anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), middle frontal gyrus (MFG), paracingulate gyrus (Pcg) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)], and striatum [nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and caudate]. Increased functional connectivity between ACC and caudate was associated with deactivation to social rewards in the caudate, as previously reported in the same participants. Greater connectivity between the right MFG and caudate was associated with higher restricted interests and repetitive behaviors and connectivity between the bilateral Pcg and NAcc, and the right OFC and NAcc, was negatively associated with social and communicative deficits. Although tracts were reliably constructed for each subject, there were no group differences in structural connectivity. Results are in keeping with previously reported increased corticostriatal functional connectivity in ASD.
Autism Spectrum Disorder; connectivity; frontostriatal; striatum; fMRI; DTI; social reward
The sociocommunicative impairments that define autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are not present at birth but emerge gradually over the first two years of life. In typical development, basic attentional processes may provide a critical foundation for sociocommunicative abilities. Therefore early attentional dysfunction in ASD may result in atypical development of social communication. Prior research has demonstrated that persons with ASD exhibit early and lifelong impairments in attention. The primary aim of this paper is to provide a review of the extant research on attention in ASD using a framework of functionally independent attentional networks as conceptualized by Posner and colleagues: the alerting, orienting and executive control networks (Posner and Petersen, 1990; Petersen & Posner, 2012). The neural substrates and typical development of each attentional network is briefly discussed, a review of the ASD attention literature is presented, and a hypothesis is proposed that links aberrant attentional mechanisms, specifically impaired disengagement of attention, with the emergence of core ASD symptoms.
autism; attention; development; alerting; arousal; orienting; disengagement; executive control
Response inhibition, or the suppression of prepotent, but contextually inappropriate behaviors, is essential to adaptive, flexible responding. In autism spectrum disorders (ASD), difficulty inhibiting prepotent behaviors may contribute to restricted, repetitive behavior (RRB). Individuals with ASD consistently show deficient response inhibition while performing antisaccades, which require one to inhibit the prepotent response of looking towards a suddenly appearing stimulus (i.e., a prosaccade), and to substitute a gaze in the opposite direction. Here, we used fMRI to identify the neural correlates of this deficit. We focused on two regions that are critical for saccadic inhibition: the frontal eye field (FEF), the key cortical region for generating volitional saccades, and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), which is thought to exert top-down control on FEF. We also compared ASD and control groups on the functional connectivity of the dACC and FEF during saccadic performance. In the context of an increased antisaccade error rate, ASD participants showed decreased functional connectivity of the FEF and dACC and decreased inhibition-related activation (based on the contrast of antisaccades and prosaccades) in both regions. Decreased dACC activation correlated with a higher error rate in both groups, consistent with a role in top-down control. Within the ASD group, increased FEF activation and dACC/FEF functional connectivity were associated with more severe RRB. These findings demonstrate functional abnormalities in a circuit critical for volitional ocular motor control in ASD that may contribute to deficient response inhibition and to RRB. More generally, our findings suggest reduced cognitive control over behavior by the dACC in ASD.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) impact social functioning and communication, and individuals with these disorders often have restrictive and repetitive behaviors. Accumulating data indicate that ASD is associated with alterations of neural circuitry. Functional MRI (FMRI) studies have focused on connectivity in the context of psychological tasks. However, even in the absence of a task, the brain exhibits a high degree of functional connectivity, known as intrinsic or resting connectivity. Notably, the default network, which includes the posterior cingulate cortex, retro-splenial, lateral parietal cortex/angular gyrus, medial prefrontal cortex, superior frontal gyrus, temporal lobe, and parahippocampal gyrus, is strongly active when there is no task. Altered intrinsic connectivity within the default network may underlie offline processing that may actuate ASD impairments. Using FMRI, we sought to evaluate intrinsic connectivity within the default network in ASD. Relative to controls, the ASD group showed weaker connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and superior frontal gyrus and stronger connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and both the right temporal lobe and right parahippocampal gyrus. Moreover, poorer social functioning in the ASD group was correlated with weaker connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the superior frontal gyrus. In addition, more severe restricted and repetitive behaviors in ASD were correlated with stronger connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and right parahippocampal gyrus. These findings indicate that ASD subjects show altered intrinsic connectivity within the default network, and connectivity between these structures is associated with specific ASD symptoms.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by core deficits in social functions. Two theories have been suggested to explain these deficits: mind-blindness theory posits impaired mentalizing processes (i.e. decreased ability for establishing a representation of others' state of mind), while social motivation theory proposes that diminished reward value for social information leads to reduced social attention, social interactions, and social learning. Mentalizing and motivation are integral to typical social interactions, and neuroimaging evidence points to independent brain networks that support these processes in healthy individuals. However, the simultaneous function of these networks has not been explored in individuals with ASDs. We used a social, interactive fMRI task, the Domino game, to explore mentalizing- and motivation-related brain activation during a well-defined interval where participants respond to rewards or punishments (i.e. motivation) and concurrently process information about their opponent's potential next actions (i.e. mentalizing). Thirteen individuals with high-functioning ASDs, ages 12–24, and 14 healthy controls played fMRI Domino games against a computer-opponent and separately, what they were led to believe was a human-opponent. Results showed that while individuals with ASDs understood the game rules and played similarly to controls, they showed diminished neural activity during the human-opponent runs only (i.e. in a social context) in bilateral middle temporal gyrus (MTG) during mentalizing and right Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc) during reward-related motivation (Pcluster < 0.05 FWE). Importantly, deficits were not observed in these areas when playing against a computer-opponent or in areas related to motor and visual processes. These results demonstrate that while MTG and NAcc, which are critical structures in the mentalizing and motivation networks, respectively, activate normally in a non-social context, they fail to respond in an otherwise identical social context in ASD compared to controls. We discuss implications to both the mind-blindness and social motivation theories of ASD and the importance of social context in research and treatment protocols.
•We used an fMRI Domino game to map social networks in high-functioning ASDs.•ASDs did not show MTG increased activation during mentalizing in social context.•ASDs did not show NAcc increased activation for processing reward in social context.•Activation deficits were specific to brain areas involved in social processes.•Results support both the mind-blindness and the social motivation theories of ASDs.
Theory of mind; Reward; Nucleus accumbens; Middle temporal gyrus
Research studies have uncovered several metabolic abnormalities associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including mitochondrial disease (MD) and abnormal redox metabolism. Despite the close connection between mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress, the relation between MD and oxidative stress in children with ASD has not been studied. Plasma markers of oxidative stress and measures of cognitive and language development and ASD behavior were obtained from 18 children diagnosed with ASD who met criteria for probable or definite MD per the Morava et al. criteria (ASD/MD) and 18 age and gender-matched ASD children without any biological markers or symptoms of MD (ASD/NoMD). Plasma measures of redox metabolism included reduced free glutathione (fGSH), oxidized glutathione (GSSG), the fGSH/GSSG ratio and 3-nitrotyrosine (3NT). In addition, a plasma measure of chronic immune activation, 3-chlorotyrosine (3CT), was also measured. Language was measured using the preschool language scale or the expressive one-word vocabulary test (depending on the age), adaptive behaviour was measured using the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale (VABS) and core autism symptoms were measured using the Autism Symptoms Questionnaire and the Social Responsiveness Scale. Children with ASD/MD were found to have lower scores on the communication and daily living skill subscales of the VABS despite having similar language and ASD symptoms. Children with ASD/MD demonstrated significantly higher levels of fGSH/GSSG and lower levels of GSSG as compared with children with ASD/NoMD, suggesting an overall more favourable glutathione redox status in the ASD/MD group. However, compare with controls, both ASD groups demonstrated lower fGSH and fGSH/GSSG, demonstrating that both groups suffer from redox abnormalities. Younger ASD/MD children had higher levels of 3CT than younger ASD/NoMD children because of an age-related effect in the ASD/MD group. Both ASD groups demonstrated significantly higher 3CT levels than control subjects, suggesting that chronic inflammation was present in both groups of children with ASD. Interestingly, 3NT was found to correlate positively with several measures of cognitive function, development and behavior for the ASD/MD group, but not the ASD/NoMD group, such that higher 3NT concentrations were associated with more favourable adaptive behaviour, language and ASD-related behavior. To determine whether difference in receiving medications and/or supplements could account for the differences in redox and inflammatory biomarkers across ASD groups, we examined differences in medication and supplements across groups and their effect of redox and inflammatory biomarkers. Overall, significantly more participants in the ASD/MD group were receiving folate, vitamin B12, carnitine, co-enzyme Q10, B vitamins and antioxidants. We then determined whether folate, carnitine, co-enzyme Q10, B vitamins and/or antioxidants influenced redox or inflammatory biomarkers. Antioxidant supplementation was associated with a significantly lower GSSG, whereas antioxidants, co-enzyme Q10 and B vitamins were associated with a higher fGSH/GSSG ratio. There was no relation between folate, carnitine, co-enzyme Q10, B vitamins and antioxidants with 3NT, 3CT or fGSH. Overall, our findings suggest that ASD/MD children with a more chronic oxidized microenvironment have better development. We interpret this finding in light of the fact that more active mitochondrial can create a greater oxidized microenvironment especially when dysfunctional. Thus, compensatory upregulation of mitochondria which are dysfunctional may both increase activity and function at the expense of a more oxidized microenvironment. Although more ASD/MD children were receiving certain supplements, the use of such supplements were not found to be related to the redox biomarkers that were related to cognitive development or behavior in the ASD/MD group but could possibly account for the difference in glutathione metabolism noted between groups. This study suggests that different subgroups of children with ASD have different redox abnormalities, which may arise from different sources. A better understanding of the relationship between mitochondrial dysfunction in ASD and oxidative stress, along with other factors that may contribute to oxidative stress, will be critical to understanding how to guide treatment and management of ASD children. This study also suggests that it is important to identify ASD/MD children as they may respond differently to specific treatments because of their specific metabolic profile.
autism; inflammation; endophenotypes; mitochondrial disease; oxidative stress
This research focuses on the relationship between fragile X syndrome (FXS) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Both of these populations have a tendency to avoid looking others in the eye, along with difficulties in communication with others and tend to be socially withdrawn. While it is clear that FXS and ASD share some common abnormal behaviors, the underlying brain mechanisms associated with the social and emotional deficits in these groups remain unclear. We showed pictures of emotional and non-emotional human faces to these groups while in a magnetic resonance scanner (MRI). We collected images of brain function along with measures of where on the faces the individuals were looking (e.g. eyes or mouth). The FXS group showed a similar yet less abnormal pattern of where they were looking on the face compared to the ASD group. The FXS group also showed a similar pattern of decreased brain function in the area of the brain typically used when looking at faces, the fusiform gyrus (FG). The amount of activation in the FG was associated with how much time the FXS and ASD individuals looked at the eyes, the more they looked at the eyes, the greater the FG activation. The FXS group also displayed more brain activation than both the ASD group and a group of typically developing control subjects in brain areas that might suggest increased task difficulty for the FXS group. These group differences in brain activation are important as they suggest there is some overlap in areas of brain function in FXS and ASD when looking at faces, but that these two groups also have unique activation in other brain areas. These findings largely support the idea that ASD characteristics in FXS are associated with partially different patterns of brain activation when looking at human faces compared to individuals with ASD.
Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most commonly known genetic disorder associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Overlapping features in these populations include gaze aversion, communication deficits, and social withdrawal. Although the association between FXS and ASD has been well documented at the behavioral level, the underlying neural mechanisms associated with the social/emotional deficits in these groups remain unclear.
We collected functional brain images and eye-gaze fixations from 9 individuals with FXS and 14 individuals with idiopathic ASD, as well as 15 typically developing (TD) individuals, while they performed a facial-emotion discrimination task.
The FXS group showed a similar yet less aberrant pattern of gaze-fixations compared to the ASD group. The FXS group also showed fusiform gyrus (FG) hypoactivation compared to the TD control group. Activation in FG was strongly and positively associated with average eye fixation and negatively associated with ASD characteristics in the FXS group. The FXS group displayed significantly greater activation than both the TD control and ASD groups in the left hippocampus (HIPP), left superior temporal gyrus (STG), right insula (INS), and left post-central gyrus (PCG).
These group differences in brain activation are important as they suggest unique underlying face-processing neural circuitry in FXS versus idiopathic ASD, largely supporting the hypothesis that ASD characteristics in FXS and idiopathic ASD reflect partially divergent impairments at the neural level, at least in FXS individuals without a co-morbid diagnosis of ASD.
fragile X syndrome; autism; face processing; brain function; fMRI
Error monitoring and correction is one of the executive functions and is important for effective goal directed behavior. Deficient executive functioning, including reduced error monitoring ability, is one of the typical features of such neurodevelopmental disorders as autism, probably related to perseverative responding, stereotyped repetitive behaviors, and an inability to accurately monitor ongoing behavior. Our prior studies of behavioral and event-related potential (ERP) measures during performance on visual oddball tasks in high-functioning autistic (HFA) children showed that despite only minor differences in reaction times HFA children committed significantly more errors.
This study investigated error monitoring in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with response-locked event-related potentials - the Error-related Negativity (ERN) and Error-related Positivity (Pe) recorded at fronto-central sites. The ERN reflects early error detection processes, while the Pe has been associated with later conscious error evaluation and attention re-allocation. Reaction times (RT) in correct trials and post-error slowing in reaction times were measured. In this study fourteen subjects with ASD and 14 age- and IQ- matched controls received a three-category visual oddball task with novel distracters.
ERN had a lower amplitude and longer latency in the ASD group but was localized in the caudal part of anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in both groups. The Pe component was significantly prolonged in the ASD group but did not reach significance in amplitude differences compared to controls. We found significant post-error slowing in RTs in controls, and post-error acceleration in RTs in the ASD group.
The reduced ERN and altered Pe along with a lack of post-error RT slowing in autism might be interpreted as insensitivity in the detection and monitoring of response errors and a reduced ability of execute corrective actions. This might result in reduced error awareness and failure in adjustment when dealing with situations where erroneous responses may occur. This deficit might be manifested in the perseverative behaviors often seen in individuals with ASD. The results are discussed in terms of a general impairment in self-monitoring and other executive functions underlying behavioral and social disturbances in ASD.
Autism; Executive functions; Error monitoring; Reaction time; Cingulate cortex; oddball task
Executive functions deficits are among the most frequently reported symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), however, there have been few functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that investigate the neural substrates of executive functions deficits in ASDs, and only one in adolescents. The current study examined cognitive control –the ability to maintain task context online to support adaptive functioning in the face of response competition—in 22 adolescents aged 12–18 with autism spectrum disorders and 23 age, gender, and IQ matched typically developing subjects. During the cue phase of the task, where subjects must maintain information online to overcome a prepotent response tendency, typically developing subjects recruited significantly more anterior frontal (BA 10), parietal (BA 7, 40), and occipital regions (BA 18) for high control trials (25% of trials) versus low control trials (75% of trials). Both groups showed similar activation for low control cues, however the ASD group exhibited significantly less activation for high control cues. Functional connectivity analysis using time series correlation, factor analysis, and beta series correlation methods provided convergent evidence that the ASD group exhibited lower levels of functional connectivity and less network integration between frontal, parietal, and occipital regions. In the typically developing group, fronto-parietal connectivity was related to lower error rates on high control trials. In the autism group, reduced fronto-parietal connectivity was related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms.
autism spectrum disorders; cognitive control; executive functions; fMRI; functional connectivity; attention deficit disorder
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are associated with disturbances of neural connectivity. Functional connectivity between neural structures is typically examined within the context of a cognitive task, but also exists in the absence of a task (i.e., “rest”). Connectivity during rest is particularly active in a set of structures called the default network, which includes the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), retrosplenial cortex, lateral parietal cortex/angular gyrus, medial prefrontal cortex, superior frontal gyrus, temporal lobe, and parahippocampal gyrus. We previously reported that adults with ASD relative to controls show areas of stronger and weaker connectivity within the default network. The objective of the present study was to examine the default network in adolescents with ASD. Sixteen adolescents with ASD and 15 controls participated in a functional MRI study. Functional connectivity was examined between a PCC seed and other areas of the default network. Both groups showed connectivity in the default network. Relative to controls, adolescents with ASD showed widespread weaker connectivity in nine of the eleven areas of the default network. Moreover, an analysis of symptom severity indicated that poorer social skills and increases in restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests correlated with weaker connectivity, whereas poorer verbal and non-verbal communication correlated with stronger connectivity in multiple areas of the default network. These findings indicate that adolescents with ASD show weaker connectivity in the default network than previously reported in adults with ASD. The findings also show that weaker connectivity within the default network is associated with specific impairments in ASD.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging; development; symptom severity; Asperger’s syndrome; pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by significant social impairments, including deficits in orienting attention following social cues. Behavioral studies investigating social orienting in ASD, however, have yielded mixed results, as the use of naturalistic paradigms typically reveals clear deficits whereas computerized laboratory experiments often report normative behavior. The present study is the first to examine the neural mechanisms underlying social orienting in ASD in order to provide new insight into the social attention impairments that characterize this disorder. Using fMRI, we examined the neural correlates of social orienting in children and adolescents with ASD and in a matched sample of typically developing (TD) controls while they performed a spatial cueing paradigm with social (eye gaze) and nonsocial (arrow) cues. Cues were either directional (indicating left or right) or neutral (indicating no direction), and directional cues were uninformative of the upcoming target location in order to engage automatic processes by minimizing expectations. Behavioral results demonstrated intact orienting effects for social and nonsocial cues, with no differences between groups. The imaging results, however, revealed clear group differences in brain activity. When attention was directed by social cues compared to nonsocial cues, the TD group showed increased activity in frontoparietal attention networks, visual processing regions, and the striatum, whereas the ASD group only showed increased activity in the superior parietal lobule. Significant group × cue type interactions confirmed greater responsivity in task-relevant networks for social cues than nonsocial cues in TD as compared to ASD, despite similar behavioral performance. These results indicate that, in the autistic brain, social cues are not assigned the same privileged status as they are in the typically developing brain. These findings provide the first empirical evidence that the neural circuitry involved in social orienting is disrupted in ASD and highlight that normative behavioral performance in a laboratory setting may reflect compensatory mechanisms rather than intact social attention.
autism; attention; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; social cue
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a brain area involved in modulating behavior associated with social interaction, disruption of which is a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Functional brain imaging studies demonstrate abnormalities of the ACC in ASD as compared to typically developing control patients. However, little is known regarding the cellular basis of these functional deficits in ASD. Pyramidal neurons in the ACC are excitatory glutamatergic neurons and key cellular mediators of the neural output of the ACC. This study was designed to investigate the potential role of ACC pyramidal neurons in ASD brain pathology.
Postmortem ACC tissue from carefully matched ASD and typically developing control donors was obtained from two national brain collections. Pyramidal neurons and surrounding astrocytes were separately collected from layer III of the ACC by laser capture microdissection. Isolated RNA was subjected to reverse transcription and endpoint PCR to determine gene expression levels for 16 synaptic genes relevant to glutamatergic neurotransmission. Cells were also collected from the prefrontal cortex (Brodmann area 10) to examine those genes demonstrating differences in expression in the ACC comparing typically developing and ASD donors.
The level of NTRK2 expression was robustly and significantly lower in pyramidal neurons from ASD donors as compared to typically developing donors. Levels of expression of GRIN1, GRM8, SLC1A1, and GRIP1 were modestly lower in pyramidal neurons from ASD donors, but statistical significance for these latter genes did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. No significant expression differences of any genes were found in astrocytes laser captured from the same neocortical area. In addition, expression levels of NTRK2 and other synaptic genes were normal in pyramidal neurons laser captured from the prefrontal cortex.
These studies demonstrate a unique pathology of neocortical pyramidal neurons of the ACC in ASD. NTRK2 encodes the tropomyosin receptor kinase B (TrkB), transmission through which neurotrophic factors modify differentiation, plasticity, and synaptic transmission. Reduced pyramidal neuron NTRK2 expression in the ACC could thereby contribute to abnormal neuronal activity and disrupt social behavior mediated by this brain region.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13229-015-0023-2) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Pyramidal neurons; Astrocytes; Cingulate; Autism; Glutamate receptors
Working memory is a temporary storage system under attentional control. It is believed to play a central role in online processing of complex cognitive information and may also play a role in social cognition and interpersonal interactions. Adolescents with a disorder on the autism spectrum display problems in precisely these domains. Social impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive interests and activities are core domains of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and executive function problems are often seen throughout the spectrum. As the main cognitive theories of ASD, including the theory of mind deficit hypotheses, weak central coherence account, and the executive dysfunction theory, still fail to explain the broad spectrum of symptoms, a new perspective on the etiology of ASD is needed. Deficits in working memory are central to many theories of psychopathology, and are generally linked to frontal-lobe dysfunction. This article will review neuropsychological and (functional) brain imaging studies on working memory in adolescents with ASD. Although still disputed, it is concluded that within the working memory system specific problems of spatial working memory are often seen in adolescents with ASD. These problems increase when information is more complex and greater demands on working memory are made. Neuroimaging studies indicate a more global working memory processing or connectivity deficiency, rather than a focused deficit in the prefrontal cortex. More research is needed to relate these working memory difficulties and neuroimaging results in ASD to the behavioral difficulties as seen in individuals with a disorder on the autism spectrum.
Working memory; Adolescents; Autism; Neuropsychology; Neuroimaging
Multifaceted and idiosyncratic aberrancies in social cognition characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). To advance understanding of underlying neural mechanisms, we measured brain hemodynamic activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in individuals with ASD and matched-pair neurotypical (NT) controls while they were viewing a feature film portraying social interactions. Pearson's correlation coefficient was used as a measure of voxelwise similarity of brain activity (InterSubject Correlations—ISCs). Individuals with ASD showed lower ISC than NT controls in brain regions implicated in processing social information including the insula, posterior and anterior cingulate cortex, caudate nucleus, precuneus, lateral occipital cortex, and supramarginal gyrus. Curiously, also within NT group, autism-quotient scores predicted ISC in overlapping areas, including, e.g., supramarginal gyrus and precuneus. In ASD participants, functional connectivity was decreased between the frontal pole and the superior frontal gyrus, angular gyrus, superior parietal lobule, precentral gyrus, precuneus, and anterior/posterior cingulate gyrus. Taken together these results suggest that ISC and functional connectivity measure distinct features of atypical brain function in high-functioning autistic individuals during free viewing of acted social interactions. Our ISC results suggest that the minds of ASD individuals do not ‘tick together’ with others while perceiving identical dynamic social interactions.
•We studied brain function in autism during free viewing of social interactions.•The brains of individuals with autism do not ‘tick together’ with others.•Long-range functional connectivity is altered in individuals with autism.•Link between autistic traits and social brain synchrony extends to normal population.
Asperger syndrome; fMRI; Intersubject correlation; Movie; Social brain
Recent evidence suggests that a rapid, automatic face-detection system is supported by subcortical structures including the amygdala, pulvinar, and superior colliculus. Early emerging abnormalities in these structures may be related to reduced social orienting in children with autism, and subsequently, to aberrant development of cortical circuits involved in face processing. Our objective was to determine whether functional abnormalities in the subcortical face processing system are present in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) during supraliminal fearful face processing. Participants included twenty-eight individuals with ASD and 25 controls group-matched on age, IQ, and behavioral performance. The ASD group met diagnostic criteria on the ADI-R, ADOS-G, and DSM-IV. Both the ASD and control groups showed significant activation in bilateral fusiform gyri. The control group exhibited additional significant responses in the right amygdala, right pulvinar, and bilateral superior colliculi. In the direct group comparison, the controls showed significantly greater activation in the left amygdala, bilateral fusiform gyrus, right pulvinar, and bilateral superior colliculi. No brain region showed significantly greater activation in the ASD group compared to the controls. Thus, basic rapid face identification mechanisms appear to be functional in ASD. However, individuals with ASD failed to engage the subcortical brain regions involved in face detection and automatic emotional face processing, suggesting a core mechanism for impaired socioemotional processing in ASD. Neural abnormalities in this system may contribute to early emerging deficits in social orienting and attention, the putative precursors to abnormalities in social cognition and cortical face processing specialization.
Impaired neuropsychological test performance, especially on tests of executive function and attention, is often seen in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Structures involved in fronto-striatal circuitry, such as the caudate nucleus, may support these cognitive abilities. However, few studies have examined caudate volumes specifically in children with ASD, or correlated caudate volumes to cognitive ability.
Neuropsychological test scores and caudate volumes of children with ASD were compared to those of children with bipolar disorder (BD) and of typically developing (TD) children. The relationship between test performance and caudate volumes was analyzed.
The ASD group displayed larger right and left caudate volumes, and modest executive deficits, compared to TD controls. While caudate volume inversely predicted performance on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test in all participants, it differentially predicted performance on measures of attention across the ASD, BD and TD groups.
Larger caudate volumes were related to impaired problem solving. On a test of attention, larger left caudate volumes predicted increased impulsivity and more omission errors in the ASD group as compared to the TD group, however smaller volume predicted poorer discriminant responding as compared to the BD group.
executive function; attention; bipolar disorder; autism spectrum disorders; caudate volume; neuroimaging
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are very common developmental disorders which share some similar symptoms of social, emotional, and attentional deficits. This study is aimed to help understand the differences and similarities of these deficits using analysis of dense-array event-related potentials (ERP) during an illusory figure recognition task. Although ADHD and ASD seem very distinct, they have been shown to share some similarities in their symptoms. Our hypothesis was that children with ASD will show less pronounced differences in ERP responses to target and non-target stimuli as compared to typical children, and to a lesser extent, ADHD. Participants were children with ASD (N=16), ADHD (N=16), and controls (N=16). EEG was collected using a 128 channel EEG system. The task involved the recognition of a specific illusory shape, in this case a square or triangle, created by three or four inducer disks. There were no between group differences in reaction time (RT) to target stimuli, but both ASD and ADHD committed more errors, specifically the ASD group had statistically higher commission error rate than controls. Post-error RT in ASD group was exhibited in a post-error speeding rather than corrective RT slowing typical for the controls. The ASD group also demonstrated an attenuated error-related negativity (ERN) as compared to ADHD and controls. The fronto-central P200, N200, and P300 were enhanced and less differentiated in response to target and non-target figures in the ASD group. The same ERP components were marked by more prolonged latencies in the ADHD group as compared to both ASD and typical controls. The findings are interpreted according to the “minicolumnar” hypothesis proposing existence of neuropathological differences in ASD and ADHD, specifically minicolumnar number/width morphometry spectrum differences. In autism, a model of local hyperconnectivity and long-range hypoconnectivity explains many of the behavioral and cognitive deficits present in the condition, while the inverse arrangement of local hypoconnectivity and long-range hyperconnectivity in ADHD explains some deficits typical for this disorder. The current ERP study supports the proposed suggestion that some between group differences could be manifested in the frontal ERP indices of executive functions during performance on an illusory figure categorization task.
Autism Spectrum Disorder; ADHD; Event-related Potential; Attention
Though the functional neural correlates of impaired cognitive control and social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been delineated, brain regions implicated in poor cognitive control of social information is a novel area of autism research. We recently reported in a non-clinical sample that detection of ‘social oddball’ targets activated a portion of the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus and the supracalcarine cortex (Dichter, Felder, Bodfish, Sikich, and Belger, 2009). In the present investigation, we report functional magnetic resonance imaging results from individuals with ASD who completed the same social oddball task. Between-group comparisons revealed generally greater activation in the ASD group to both social and non-social targets. When responses to social and non-social targets were contrasted, the ASD group showed relatively greater activation in the right and middle inferior frontal gyri and a region in dorsomedial prefrontal cortex that abuts the dorsal anterior cingulate (Brodmann's Area 32). Further, dorsal anterior cingulate activation to social targets predicted the severity of social impairments in a subset of the ASD sample. These data suggest that the dorsal anterior cingulate mediates social target detection in neurotypical individuals and is implicated in deficits of cognitive control of social information in ASD.
autism; fMRI; target detection; face processing; cingulate gyrus
Recent studies have suggested an uneven profile of executive dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). For example, some authors have reported deficits on newly developed tests of executive function sensitive to rostral prefrontal function, despite spared, or even superior, performance on other tests. We investigated the performance of a group of high-functioning participants with ASD (N = 15) and an age- and IQ-matched control group (N = 18) on two executive function tests, whilst undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Behaviourally, there were no significant differences between the two groups. In a classical test of executive function (random response generation), BOLD signal differed between the groups in the cerebellum but not in the frontal lobes. However, on a new test of executive function (selection between stimulus-oriented and stimulus-independent thought), the ASD group exhibited significantly greater signal-change in medial rostral prefrontal cortex (especially Brodmann Area 10) in the comparison of stimulus-oriented versus stimulus-independent attention. In addition, the new test (but not the classical test) provided evidence for abnormal functional organisation of medial prefrontal cortex in ASD. These results underline the heterogeneity of different tests of executive function, and suggest that executive functioning in ASD is associated with task-specific functional change.
Autism; Asperger syndrome; Executive function; fMRI; Prefrontal cortex
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
Objective: Long-term memory functioning in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) is marked by a characteristic pattern of impairments and strengths. Individuals with ASD show impairment in memory tasks that require the processing of relational and contextual information, but spared performance on tasks requiring more item-based, acontextual processing. Two experiments investigated the cognitive mechanisms underlying this memory profile. Method: A sample of 14 children with a diagnosis of high-functioning ASD (age: M = 12.2 years), and a matched control group of 14 typically developing (TD) children (age: M = 12.1 years), participated in a range of behavioral memory tasks in which we measured both relational and item-based memory abilities. They also completed a battery of executive function measures. Results: The ASD group showed specific deficits in relational memory, but spared or superior performance in item-based memory, across all tasks. Importantly, for ASD children, executive ability was significantly correlated with relational memory but not with item-based memory. No such relationship was present in the control group. This suggests that children with ASD atypically employed effortful, executive strategies to retrieve relational (but not item-specific) information, whereas TD children appeared to use more automatic processes. Conclusions: The relational memory impairment in ASD may result from a specific impairment in automatic associative retrieval processes with an increased reliance on effortful and strategic retrieval processes. Our findings allow specific neural predictions to be made regarding the interactive functioning of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and posterior parietal cortex in ASD as a neural network supporting relational memory processing.
autism spectrum disorder; relational memory; hippocampus; posterior parietal cortex; executive functions
Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rsfMRI) studies reveal a complex pattern of hyper- and hypo-connectivity in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Whereas rsfMRI findings tend to implicate the default mode network and subcortical areas in ASD, task fMRI and behavioral experiments point to social dysfunction as a unifying impairment of the disorder. Here, we leverage a novel Bayesian framework for whole-brain functional connectomics that aggregates population differences in connectivity to localize a subset of foci that are most affected by ASD. Our approach is entirely data-driven and does not impose spatial constraints on the region foci or dictate the trajectory of altered functional pathways. We apply our method to data from the openly shared Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange (ABIDE) and pinpoint two intrinsic functional networks that distinguish ASD patients from typically developing controls. One network involves foci in the right temporal pole, left posterior cingulate cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, and left middle temporal gyrus. Automated decoding of this network by the Neurosynth meta-analytic database suggests high-level concepts of “language” and “comprehension” as the likely functional correlates. The second network consists of the left banks of the superior temporal sulcus, right posterior superior temporal sulcus extending into temporo-parietal junction, and right middle temporal gyrus. Associated functionality of these regions includes “social” and “person”. The abnormal pathways emanating from the above foci indicate that ASD patients simultaneously exhibit reduced long-range or inter-hemispheric connectivity and increased short-range or intra-hemispheric connectivity. Our findings reveal new insights into ASD and highlight possible neural mechanisms of the disorder.
•Our Bayesian model localizes the central foci of altered brain networks in ASD.•The method is entirely data-driven and suitable for a whole-brain analysis.•We demonstrate our approach on data from the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange.•We identify two abnormal networks, with foci in the temporal lobe and default mode.•High-level functional correlates include language, comprehension, social and person.
Functional MRI; Bayesian analysis; Autism; Brain networks
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to make inadequate social judgments, particularly when the nonverbal and verbal emotional expressions of other people are incongruent. Although previous behavioral studies have suggested that ASD individuals have difficulty in using nonverbal cues when presented with incongruent verbal-nonverbal information, the neural mechanisms underlying this symptom of ASD remain unclear. In the present functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we compared brain activity in 15 non-medicated adult males with high-functioning ASD to that of 17 age-, parental-background-, socioeconomic-, and intelligence-quotient-matched typically-developed (TD) male participants. Brain activity was measured while each participant made friend or foe judgments of realistic movies in which professional actors spoke with conflicting nonverbal facial expressions and voice prosody. We found that the ASD group made significantly less judgments primarily based on the nonverbal information than the TD group, and they exhibited significantly less brain activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus, bilateral anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex/ventral medial prefrontal cortex (ACC/vmPFC), and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) than the TD group. Among these five regions, the ACC/vmPFC and dmPFC were most involved in nonverbal-information-biased judgments in the TD group. Furthermore, the degree of decrease of the brain activity in these two brain regions predicted the severity of autistic communication deficits. The findings indicate that diminished activity in the ACC/vmPFC and dmPFC underlies the impaired abilities of individuals with ASD to use nonverbal content when making judgments regarding other people based on incongruent social information.