Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder marked by difficulty in social interactions and communication. ASD also often present symptoms of autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning abnormalities. In individuals with autism the sympathetic branch of the ANS presents an over-activation on a background of the parasympathetic activity deficits, creating an autonomic imbalance, evidenced by a faster heart rate with little variation and increased tonic electrodermal activity. The objective of this study was to explore the effect of 12 sessions of 0.5 Hz repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) over dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) on autonomic activity in children with ASD. Electrocardiogram and skin conductance level (SCL) were recorded and analyzed during each session of rTMS. The measures of interest were time domain (i.e., R-R intervals, standard deviation of cardiac intervals, NN50-cardio-intervals >50 ms different from preceding interval) and frequency domain heart rate variability (HRV) indices [i.e., power of high frequency (HF) and low frequency (LF) components of HRV spectrum, LF/HF ratio]. Based on our prior pilot studies it was proposed that the course of 12 weekly inhibitory low-frequency rTMS bilaterally applied to the DLPFC will improve autonomic balance probably through improved frontal inhibition of the ANS activity, and will be manifested in an increased length of cardiointervals and their variability, and in higher frequency-domain HRV in a form of increased HF power, decreased LF power, resulting in decreased LF/HF ratio, and in decreased SCL. Our post-12 TMS results showed significant increases in cardiac intervals variability measures and decrease of tonic SCL indicative of increased cardiac vagal control and reduced sympathetic arousal. Behavioral evaluations showed decreased irritability, hyperactivity, stereotype behavior and compulsive behavior ratings that correlated with several autonomic variables.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Autonomic activity; Heart rate; Heart rate variability; Skin conductance level; Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).