Reduced task-dependent modulation of functional network architecture for positive versus negative affective touch processing in autism spectrum disorders

Neuroimage. 2020 Oct 1;219:117009. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117009. Epub 2020 Jun 3.


Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) experience impairments in social communication and interaction, and often show difficulties with receiving and offering touch. Despite the high prevalence of abnormal reactions to touch in ASD, and the importance of touch communication in human relationships, the neural mechanisms underlying atypical touch processing in ASD remain largely unknown. To answer this question, we provided both pleasant and unpleasant touch stimulation to male adults with and without ASD during functional neuroimaging. By employing generalized psychophysiological interaction analysis combined with an independent component analysis approach, we characterize stimulus-dependent changes in functional connectivity patterns for processing two tactile stimuli that evoke different emotions (i.e., pleasant vs. unpleasant touch). Results reveal that neurotypical male adults showed extensive stimulus-sensitive modulations of the functional network architecture in response to the different types of touch, both at the level of brain regions and large-scale networks. Conversely, far fewer stimulus-sensitive modulations were observed in the ASD group. These aberrant functional connectivity profiles in the ASD group were marked by hypo-connectivity of the parietal operculum and major pain networks and hyper-connectivity between the semantic and limbic networks. Lastly, individuals presenting more social deficits and a more negative attitude towards social touch showed greater hyper-connectivity between the limbic and semantic networks. These findings suggest that reduced stimulus-related modulation of this functional network architecture is associated with abnormal processing of touch in ASD.

Keywords: Affective touch; Autism spectrum disorders; Disrupted functional brain networks; Functional connectivity; Generalized psychophysiological interaction analysis; Independent component analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnostic imaging
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Touch / physiology
  • Touch Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult