IMPORTANCE: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit severe difficulties in social interaction, motor coordination, behavioral flexibility, and atypical sensory processing, with considerable interindividual variability. This heterogeneous set of symptoms recently led to investigating the presence of abnormalities in the interaction across large-scale brain networks. To date, studies have focused either on constrained sets of brain regions or whole-brain analysis, rather than focusing on the interaction between brain networks.
OBJECTIVES: To compare the intrinsic functional connectivity between brain networks in a large sample of individuals with ASD and typically developing control subjects and to estimate to what extent group differences would predict autistic traits and reflect different developmental trajectories.
DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: We studied 166 male individuals (mean age, 17.6 years; age range, 7-50 years) diagnosed as having DSM-IV-TR autism or Asperger syndrome and 193 typical developing male individuals (mean age, 16.9 years; age range, 6.5-39.4 years) using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Participants were matched for age, IQ, head motion, and eye status (open or closed) in the MRI scanner. We analyzed data from the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange (ABIDE), an aggregated MRI data set from 17 centers, made public in August 2012.
MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: We estimated correlations between time courses of brain networks extracted using a data-driven method (independent component analysis). Subsequently, we associated estimates of interaction strength between networks with age and autistic traits indexed by the Social Responsiveness Scale.
RESULTS: Relative to typically developing control participants, individuals with ASD showed increased functional connectivity between primary sensory networks and subcortical networks (thalamus and basal ganglia) (all t ≥ 3.13, P < .001 corrected). The strength of such connections was associated with the severity of autistic traits in the ASD group (all r ≥ 0.21, P < .0067 corrected). In addition, subcortico-cortical interaction decreased with age in the entire sample (all r ≤ -0.09, P < .012 corrected), although this association was significant only in typically developing participants (all r ≤ -0.13, P < .009 corrected).
CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Our results showing ASD-related impairment in the interaction between primary sensory cortices and subcortical regions suggest that the sensory processes they subserve abnormally influence brain information processing in individuals with ASD. This might contribute to the occurrence of hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity and of difficulties in top-down regulation of behavior.