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 (fcMRI) 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 (FPN; subserves error signaling in support of EBL) and cerebellar-default mode (DMN; broadly implicated in ASD) network connections. Cerebellar-FPN functional connectivity was used as a proxy for EBL, and cerebellar-DMN functional connectivity provided a comparative foil. Data-driven fcMRI 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. fcMRI 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.

Keywords

Autismfunctional connectivitycerebelluminfancyerror-based learningdevelopment