Background: Early neurodevelopmental pathogenesis in autism potentially affects emerging functional maps, but little imaging evidence is available.
Methods: We studied eight male autistic and eight matched normal subjects, using functional magnetic resonance imaging during visually paced finger movement, compared to a control condition (visual stimulation in the absence of motor response).
Results: Groupwise analyses showed activation in contralateral perirolandic cortex, basal ganglia, and thalamus, bilateral supplementary motor area, and ipsilateral cerebellum for both groups. However, activations were less pronounced in the autism group. Direct group comparisons demonstrated greater activation in perirolandic and supplementary motor areas in the control group and greater activation (or reduced deactivation) in posterior and prefrontal cortices in the autism group. Intraindividual analyses further showed that strongest activations were consistently located along the contralateral central sulcus in control subjects but occurred in locations differing from individual to individual in the autism group.
Conclusions: Our findings, though based on a rather small sample, suggest abnormal individual variability of functional maps and less distinct regional activation/deactivation patterns in autism. The observations may relate to known motor impairments in autism and are compatible with the general hypothesis of disturbances of functional differentiation in the autistic cerebrum.