Differential effects of developmental cerebellar abnormality on cognitive and motor functions in the cerebellum: an fMRI study of autism

Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Feb;160(2):262-73. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.2.262.


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.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology
  • Autistic Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebellum / anatomy & histology
  • Cerebellum / physiology
  • Cerebellum / physiopathology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Skills / physiology
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*