Deep learning identifies robust gender differences in functional brain organization and their dissociable links to clinical symptoms in autism

Br J Psychiatry. 2022 Feb 15:1-8. doi: 10.1192/bjp.2022.13. Online ahead of print.


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly heterogeneous disorder that affects nearly 1 in 189 females and 1 in 42 males. However, the neurobiological basis of gender differences in ASD is poorly understood, as most studies have neglected females and used methods ill-suited to capture such differences.

Aims: To identify robust functional brain organisation markers that distinguish between females and males with ASD and predict symptom severity.

Method: We leveraged multiple neuroimaging cohorts (ASD n = 773) and developed a novel spatiotemporal deep neural network (stDNN), which uses spatiotemporal convolution on functional magnetic resonance imaging data to distinguish between groups.

Results: stDNN achieved consistently high classification accuracy in distinguishing between females and males with ASD. Notably, stDNN trained to distinguish between females and males with ASD could not distinguish between neurotypical females and males, suggesting that there are gender differences in the functional brain organisation in ASD that differ from normative gender differences. Brain features associated with motor, language and visuospatial attentional systems reliably distinguished between females and males with ASD. Crucially, these results were observed in a large multisite cohort and replicated in a fully independent cohort. Furthermore, brain features associated with the motor network's primary motor cortex node predicted the severity of restricted/repetitive behaviours in females but not in males with ASD.

Conclusions: Our replicable findings reveal that the brains of females and males with ASD are functionally organised differently, contributing to their clinical symptoms in distinct ways. They inform the development of gender-specific diagnoses and treatment strategies for ASD, and ultimately advance precision psychiatry.

Keywords: Autism; clinical heterogeneity; explainable artificial intelligence; motor network; reproducible science.