Atypical Local and Distal Patterns of Occipito-frontal Functional Connectivity are Related to Symptom Severity in Autism

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are increasingly prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by sociocommunicative impairments. Growing consensus indicates that neurobehavioral abnormalities require explanation in terms of interconnected networks. Despite theoretical speculations about increased local and reduced distal connectivity, links between local and distal functional connectivity have not been systematically investigated in ASDs. Specifically, it remains open whether hypothesized local overconnectivity may reflect isolated versus overly integrative processing. Resting state functional MRI data from 57 children and adolescents with ASDs and 51 typically developing (TD) participants were included. In regional homogeneity (ReHo) analyses, pericalcarine visual cortex was found be locally overconnected (ASD > TD). Using this region as seed in whole-brain analyses, we observed overconnectivity in distal regions, specifically middle frontal gyri, for an ASD subgroup identified through k-means clustering. While in this subgroup local occipital to distal frontal overconnectivity was associated with greater symptom severity, a second subgroup showed the opposite pattern of connectivity and symptom severity correlations. Our findings suggest that increased local connectivity in ASDs is region-specific and may be partially associated with more integrative long-distance connectivity. Results also highlight the need to test for subtypes, as differential patterns of brain-behavior links were observed in two distinct subgroups of our ASD cohort.

Keywords: autism; frontal cortex; functional connectivity MRI; local connectivity; visual cortex.