Objective: Recent years have seen a revolution in views regarding cerebellar function. New findings suggest that the cerebellum plays a role in multiple functional domains: cognitive, affective, and sensory as well as motor. These findings imply that developmental cerebellar pathology could play a role in certain nonmotor functional deficits, thereby calling for a broader investigation of the functional consequences of cerebellar pathology. Autism provides a useful model, since over 90% of autistic cerebella examined at autopsy have shown well-defined cerebellar anatomic abnormalities. The aim of the present study was to examine how such pathology ultimately impacts cognitive and motor function within the cerebellum.
Method: Patterns of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activation within anatomically defined cerebellar regions of interest were examined in eight autistic patients (ages 14-38 years) and eight matched healthy comparison subjects performing motor and attention tasks. For the motor task, subjects pressed a button at a comfortable pace, and activation was compared with a rest condition. For the attention task, visual stimuli were presented one at a time at fixation, and subjects pressed a button to every target. Activation was compared with passive visual stimulation.
Results: While performing these tasks, autistic individuals showed significantly greater cerebellar motor activation and significantly less cerebellar attention activation.
Conclusions: These findings shed new light on the cerebellar role in attention deficits in autism and suggest that developmental cerebellar abnormality has differential functional implications for cognitive and motor systems.