Maturation of auditory neural processes in autism spectrum disorder – A longitudinal MEG study

Background: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show atypical brain activity, perhaps due to delayed maturation. Previous studies examining the maturation of auditory electrophysiological activity have been limited due to their use of cross-sectional designs. The present study took a first step in examining magnetoencephalography (MEG) evidence of abnormal auditory response maturation in ASD via the use of a longitudinal design.

Methods: Initially recruited for a previous study, 27 children with ASD and nine typically developing (TD) children, aged 6- to 11-years-old, were re-recruited two to five years later. At both timepoints, MEG data were obtained while participants passively listened to sinusoidal pure-tones. Bilateral primary/secondary auditory cortex time domain (100 ms evoked response latency (M100)) and spectrotemporal measures (gamma-band power and inter-trial coherence (ITC)) were examined. MEG measures were also qualitatively examined for five children who exhibited “optimal outcome”, participants who were initially on spectrum, but no longer met diagnostic criteria at follow-up.

Results: M100 latencies were delayed in ASD versus TD at the initial exam (~ 19 ms) and at follow-up (~ 18 ms). At both exams, M100 latencies were associated with clinical ASD severity. In addition, gamma-band evoked power and ITC were reduced in ASD versus TD. M100 latency and gamma-band maturation rates did not differ between ASD and TD. Of note, the cohort of five children that demonstrated “optimal outcome” additionally exhibited M100 latency and gamma-band activity mean values in-between TD and ASD at both timepoints. Though justifying only qualitative interpretation, these “optimal outcome” related data are presented here to motivate future studies.

Conclusions: Children with ASD showed perturbed auditory cortex neural activity, as evidenced by M100 latency delays as well as reduced transient gamma-band activity. Despite evidence for maturation of these responses in ASD, the neural abnormalities in ASD persisted across time. Of note, data from the five children whom demonstrated “optimal outcome” qualitatively suggest that such clinical improvements may be associated with auditory brain responses intermediate between TD and ASD. These “optimal outcome” related results are not statistically significant though, likely due to the low sample size of this cohort, and to be expected as a result of the relatively low proportion of “optimal outcome” in the ASD population. Thus, further investigations with larger cohorts are needed to determine if the above auditory response phenotypes have prognostic utility, predictive of clinical outcome.

Keywords: ASD; Gamma; M100; MEG; Maturation.