Functional MRI connectivity of children with autism and low verbal and cognitive performance

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Background: Functional neuroimaging research in autism spectrum disorder has reported patterns of decreased long-range, within-network, and interhemispheric connectivity. Research has also reported increased corticostriatal connectivity and between-network connectivity for default and attentional networks. Past studies have excluded individuals with autism and low verbal and cognitive performance (LVCP), so connectivity in individuals more significantly affected with autism has not yet been studied. This represents a critical gap in our understanding of brain function across the autism spectrum. Methods: Using behavioral support procedures adapted from Nordahl, et al. (J Neurodev Disord 8:20-20, 2016), we completed non-sedated structural and functional MRI scans of 56 children ages 7-17, including LVCP children (n = 17, mean IQ = 54), children with autism and higher performance (HVCP, n = 20, mean IQ = 106), and neurotypical children (NT, n = 19, mean IQ = 111). Preparation included detailed intake questionnaires, video modeling, behavioral and anxiety reduction techniques, active noise-canceling headphones, and in-scan presentation of the Inscapes movie paradigm from Vanderwal et al. (Neuroimage 122:222-32, 2015). A high temporal resolution multiband echoplanar fMRI protocol analyzed motion-free time series data, extracted from concatenated volumes to mitigate the influence of motion artifact. All participants had > 200 volumes of motion-free fMRI scanning. Analyses were corrected for multiple comparisons. Results: LVCP showed decreased within-network connectivity in default, salience, auditory, and frontoparietal networks (LVCP < HVCP) and decreased interhemispheric connectivity (LVCP < HVCP=NT). Between-network connectivity was higher for LVCP than NT between default and dorsal attention and frontoparietal networks. Lower IQ was associated with decreased connectivity within the default network and increased connectivity between default and dorsal attention networks. Conclusions: This study demonstrates that with moderate levels of support, including readily available techniques, information about brain similarities and differences in LVCP individuals can be further studied. This initial study suggested decreased network segmentation and integration in LVCP individuals. Further imaging studies of LVCP individuals with larger samples will add to understanding of origins and effects of autism on brain function and behavior.




Gabrielsen, T. P., Anderson, J. S., Stephenson, K. G., Beck, J., King, J. B., Kellems, R., … South, M. (2018). Functional MRI connectivity of children with autism and low verbal and cognitive performance. Molecular Autism, 9(1).

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