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Atypical functional connectivity of temporal cortex with precuneus and visual regions may be an early-age signature of ASD.

Molecular Autism 2023 March 11
BACKGROUND: Social and language abilities are closely intertwined during early typical development. In autism spectrum disorder (ASD), however, deficits in social and language development are early-age core symptoms. We previously reported that superior temporal cortex, a well-established social and language region, shows reduced activation to social affective speech in ASD toddlers; however, the atypical cortical connectivity that accompanies this deviance remains unknown.

METHODS: We collected clinical, eye tracking, and resting-state fMRI data from 86 ASD and non-ASD subjects (mean age 2.3 ± 0.7 years). Functional connectivity of left and right superior temporal regions with other cortical regions and correlations between this connectivity and each child's social and language abilities were examined.

RESULTS: While there was no group difference in functional connectivity, the connectivity between superior temporal cortex and frontal and parietal regions was significantly correlated with language, communication, and social abilities in non-ASD subjects, but these effects were absent in ASD subjects. Instead, ASD subjects, regardless of different social or nonsocial visual preferences, showed atypical correlations between temporal-visual region connectivity and communication ability (r(49) = 0.55, p < 0.001) and between temporal-precuneus connectivity and expressive language ability (r(49) = 0.58, p < 0.001).

LIMITATIONS: The distinct connectivity-behavior correlation patterns may be related to different developmental stages in ASD and non-ASD subjects. The use of a prior 2-year-old template for spatial normalization may not be optimal for a few subjects beyond this age range.

CONCLUSIONS: Superior temporal cortex is known to have reduced activation to social affective speech in ASD at early ages, and here we find in ASD toddlers that it also has atypical connectivity with visual and precuneus cortices that is correlated with communication and language ability, a pattern not seen in non-ASD toddlers. This atypicality may be an early-age signature of ASD that also explains why the disorder has deviant early language and social development. Given that these atypical connectivity patterns are also present in older individuals with ASD, we conclude these atypical connectivity patterns persist across age and may explain why successful interventions targeting language and social skills at all ages in ASD are so difficult to achieve.

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