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Neurofeedback training of executive function in autism spectrum disorder: distinct effects on brain activity levels and compensatory connectivity changes.

BACKGROUND: Deficits in executive function (EF) are consistently reported in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Tailored cognitive training tools, such as neurofeedback, focused on executive function enhancement might have a significant impact on the daily life functioning of individuals with ASD. We report the first real-time fMRI neurofeedback (rt-fMRI NF) study targeting the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in ASD.

METHODS: Thirteen individuals with autism without intellectual disability and seventeen neurotypical individuals completed a rt-fMRI working memory NF paradigm, consisting of subvocal backward recitation of self-generated numeric sequences. We performed a region-of-interest analysis of the DLPFC, whole-brain comparisons between groups and, DLPFC-based functional connectivity.

RESULTS: The ASD and control groups were able to modulate DLPFC activity in 84% and 98% of the runs. Activity in the target region was persistently lower in the ASD group, particularly in runs without neurofeedback. Moreover, the ASD group showed lower activity in premotor/motor areas during pre-neurofeedback run than controls, but not in transfer runs, where it was seemingly balanced by higher connectivity between the DLPFC and the motor cortex. Group comparison in the transfer run also showed significant differences in DLPFC-based connectivity between groups, including higher connectivity with areas integrated into the multidemand network (MDN) and the visual cortex.

CONCLUSIONS: Neurofeedback seems to induce a higher between-group similarity of the whole-brain activity levels (including the target ROI) which might be promoted by changes in connectivity between the DLPFC and both high and low-level areas, including motor, visual and MDN regions.

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