Objective: Connectivity atypicalities in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been extensively proposed. The default mode network (DMN) is critical in this study, given the insight it provides for long-distance connectivity, and the importance of regions in this network for introspection and social emotion processing, areas affected in ASD. However, study of this network has largely been limited to adults; research earlier in development is lacking. The objective of this study was to examine DMN connectivity in children/adolescents with ASD.
Methods: A total of 115 children/adolescents, aged 6 to 17 years (71 males with ASD and 44 group age-matched TD males) were included in these analyses. We examined group differences in (1) functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and regions across the brain, (2) connectivity within the DMN as a function of age and intelligence quotient (IQ), and (3) the association between DMN connectivity and empathic accuracy.
Results: Individuals with ASD, relative to controls, showed either stronger or weaker connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and DMN regions, depending on the region, but also showed stronger connectivity with non-DMN regions. A significant group-by-age interaction was observed in functional connectivity between the PCC and medial prefrontal cortex; connectivity increased with age in controls, but decreased in individuals with ASD. No effects of IQ were found. There was a significant group difference in the relation between DMN connectivity and empathic accuracy.
Interpretation: Differences in functional connectivity may suggest the presence of neural atypicalities that impact the development of typical connectivity in ASD. In addition to affecting DMN dynamics, these atypicalities may also impact social-cognitive abilities.
© 2015 American Neurological Association.