Functional connectivity is abnormal in autism, but the nature of these abnormalities remains elusive. Different studies, mostly using functional magnetic resonance imaging, have found increased, decreased, or even mixed pattern functional connectivity abnormalities in autism, but no unifying framework has emerged to date. We measured functional connectivity in individuals with autism and in controls using magnetoencephalography, which allowed us to resolve both the directionality (feedforward versus feedback) and spatial scale (local or long-range) of functional connectivity. Specifically, we measured the cortical response and functional connectivity during a passive 25-Hz vibrotactile stimulation in the somatosensory cortex of 20 typically developing individuals and 15 individuals with autism, all males and right-handed, aged 8-18, and the mu-rhythm during resting state in a subset of these participants (12 per group, same age range). Two major significant group differences emerged in the response to the vibrotactile stimulus. First, the 50-Hz phase locking component of the cortical response, generated locally in the primary (S1) and secondary (S2) somatosensory cortex, was reduced in the autism group (P < 0.003, corrected). Second, feedforward functional connectivity between S1 and S2 was increased in the autism group (P < 0.004, corrected). During resting state, there was no group difference in the mu-α rhythm. In contrast, the mu-β rhythm, which has been associated with feedback connectivity, was significantly reduced in the autism group (P < 0.04, corrected). Furthermore, the strength of the mu-β was correlated to the relative strength of 50 Hz component of the response to the vibrotactile stimulus (r = 0.78, P < 0.00005), indicating a shared aetiology for these seemingly unrelated abnormalities. These magnetoencephalography-derived measures were correlated with two different behavioural sensory processing scores (P < 0.01 and P < 0.02 for the autism group, P < 0.01 and P < 0.0001 for the typical group), with autism severity (P < 0.03), and with diagnosis (89% accuracy). A biophysically realistic computational model using data driven feedforward and feedback parameters replicated the magnetoencephalography data faithfully. The direct observation of both abnormally increased and abnormally decreased functional connectivity in autism occurring simultaneously in different functional connectivity streams, offers a potential unifying framework for the unexplained discrepancies in current findings. Given that cortical feedback, whether local or long-range, is intrinsically non-linear, while cortical feedforward is generally linear relative to the stimulus, the present results suggest decreased non-linearity alongside an increased veridical component of the cortical response in autism.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; biomarker; coherence; magnetoencephalography; mu-rhythm; steady-state; vibrotactile.
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