Higher cognitive functions in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are characterized by impairments in executive functions (EF). While some research attributes this to an overreliance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), others demonstrate poor recruitment of the PFC in individuals with ASD. In order to assess the emerging consensus across neuroimaging studies of EF in ASD, the current study used a coordinate-based activation likelihood estimation (ALE) analysis of 16 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, resulting in a meta-analysis of data from 739 participants (356 ASD, 383 typically developing [TD] individuals) ranging from 7 to 52 years of age. Within-group analysis of EF tasks revealed that both TD and ASD participants had significant activity in PFC regions. Analysis of group differences indicated greater activation in ASD, relative to TD participants, in the right middle frontal gyrus and the anterior cingulate cortex, and lesser activation in the bilateral middle frontal, left inferior frontal gyrus, right inferior parietal lobule, and precuneus. Although both ASD and TD participants showed similar PFC activation, there was differential recruitment of wider network of EF regions such as the IPL in ASD participants. The under-recruitment of parietal regions may be due to poor connectivity of the frontoparietal networks with other regions during EF tasks or a restricted executive network in ASD participants which is limited primarily to the PFC. These results support the executive dysfunction hypothesis of ASD and suggests that poor frontoparietal recruitment may underlie some of the EF difficulties individuals with ASD experience. LAY SUMMARY: This study reports a meta-analysis of 16 brain imaging studies of executive functions (EF) in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While parts of the brain's EF network is activated in both ASD and control participants, the ASD group does not activate a wider network of EF regions such as the parietal cortex. This may be due to poor EF network connectivity, or a constrained EF network in ASD participants. These results may underlie some of the EF difficulties individuals with ASD experience. Autism Res 2020, 13: 1762-1777. © 2020 International Society for Autism Research and Wiley Periodicals LLC.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; executive functions; neuroimaging.
© 2020 International Society for Autism Research and Wiley Periodicals LLC.