A Prospective Evaluation of Infant Cerebellar-Cerebral Functional Connectivity in Relation to Behavioral Development in Autism

Background

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosed based on social impairment, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Contemporary theories posit that cerebellar pathology contributes causally to ASD by disrupting error-based learning (EBL) during infancy. The present study represents the first test of this theory in a prospective infant sample, with potential implications for ASD detection.

Methods

Data from the Infant Brain Imaging Study (n = 94, 68 male) were used to examine 6-month cerebellar functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging in relation to later (12/24-month) ASD-associated behaviors and outcomes. Hypothesis-driven univariate analyses and machine learning–based predictive tests examined cerebellar–frontoparietal network (FPN; subserves error signaling in support of EBL) and cerebellar–default mode network (DMN; broadly implicated in ASD) connections. Cerebellar-FPN functional connectivity was used as a proxy for EBL, and cerebellar-DMN functional connectivity provided a comparative foil. Data-driven functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging enrichment examined brain-wide behavioral associations, with post hoc tests of cerebellar connections.

Results

Cerebellar-FPN and cerebellar-DMN connections did not demonstrate associations with ASD. Functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging enrichment identified 6-month correlates of later ASD-associated behaviors in networks of a priori interest (FPN, DMN), as well as in cingulo-opercular (also implicated in error signaling) and medial visual networks. Post hoc tests did not suggest a role for cerebellar connections.

Conclusions

We failed to identify cerebellar functional connectivity–based contributions to ASD. However, we observed prospective correlates of ASD-associated behaviors in networks that support EBL. Future studies may replicate and extend network-level positive results, and tests of the cerebellum may investigate brain-behavior associations at different developmental stages and/or using different neuroimaging modalities.