Prepulse inhibition of the acoustic startle reflex in high functioning autism

PLoS One. 2014 Mar 18;9(3):e92372. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092372. eCollection 2014.


Background: High functioning autism is an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication as well as repetitive and restrictive behavior while intelligence and general cognitive functioning are preserved. According to the weak central coherence account, individuals with autism tend to process information detail-focused at the expense of global form. This processing bias might be reflected by deficits in sensorimotor gating, a mechanism that prevents overstimulation during the transformation of sensory input into motor action. Prepulse inhibition is an operational measure of sensorimotor gating, which indicates an extensive attenuation of the startle reflex that occurs when a startling pulse is preceded by a weaker stimulus, the prepulse.

Methods: In the present study, prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle was compared between 17 adults with high functioning autism and 17 sex-, age-, and intelligence-matched controls by means of electromyography.

Results: Results indicate that participants with high functioning autism exhibited significantly higher startle amplitudes than the control group. However, groups did not differ with regard to PPI or habituation of startle.

Discussion: These findings challenge the results of two previous studies that reported prepulse inhibition deficits in high-functioning autism and suggest that sensorimotor gating is only impaired in certain subgroups with autism spectrum disorder.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Inhibition
  • Reflex, Startle*

Grants and funding

The authors thank the Walter and Marga Boll Foundation, the German Research Foundation (KFO-219 grant), as well as the Center for Behavioral Brain Sciences for financial support. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.