A neuroimaging study published in the journal Biological Psychology has found evidence that measures of brain connectivity can predict autistic trait expression in typically-developing children. Children with a greater degree of autistic traits showed increased theta connectivity in right anterior brain regions.
When carrying out cognitive tasks, the brain must communicate across various brain regions. Neuroimaging research has revealed that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show alterations in connectivity patterns between brain areas, which may help explain the social and cognitive difficulties typically experienced by autistic individuals.
While studies have identified neural differences that accompany ASD, it is unknown whether neural differences can predict autistic traits in the general population. Study author Aron T. Hill and his colleagues conducted an experiment to test whether brain connectivity differences can predict autistic trait expression in typically-developing children.
“We conducted this research because we were interested in exploring potential relationships between brain activity and autistic social traits. Functional connectivity allows us to examine how various brain regions interact or communicate with one another,” explained Hill, a research fellow at Deakin University.
“Previous research has indicated that connectivity can be altered in autistic people, however, it was less clear if there was any association between connectivity and autistic traits in typically developing individuals (i.e., those without a diagnosis of autism). We wanted to see if connectivity, measured using electroencephalography (EEG) — a method that allows us to record electrical brain activity via electrodes placed over the head — could predict the expression of autistic traits in typically developing children. This is an important step towards establishing brain-derived physiological measures of autistic traits.”
The study participants were 127 typically-developing children between the ages of 4 and 12. The children had no known neurological or neurodevelopmental disorder diagnoses. During the study, EEG was used to record resting-state neural activity. The children also completed the Social Responsiveness Scale 2nd Edition (SRS-2), which measured social deficits associated with ASD.
The researchers analyzed functional connectivity — a measure of how brain regions interact with each other — across seven key brain areas. They then assessed whether any of these connectivity values would predict autistic traits as measured by the SRS. Connectivity in one of the key areas, the right anterior region, showed a significant positive association with total SRS-2 scores. Children with increased right anterior connectivity showed greater autistic trait expression.
“The key take-home message from this study is that non-invasive recordings of neural communication (i.e., functional connectivity) within the brain might indeed provide a means of predicting autistic social traits in typically developing children,” Hill told PsyPost. “In this study, we specifically found that increased connectivity over right frontal brain areas was associated with more pronounced expression of autistic traits.”
Hill and his team then assessed associations between connectivity in the right anterior region and each of the five subscales of the SRS. While this did not reveal any significant effects, the results trended toward associations between right anterior connectivity and the subscales of ‘Social Motivation’ and ‘Restricted Interests and Repetitive Behaviours.’
The researchers say their results are in line with findings from a 2021 study by Aykan and colleagues which also found an association between higher connectivity in the right anterior region and autistic traits but among neurotypical adults. The current results extend these findings to show that this same association is found in neurotypical children.
“It was nice to see that our results appear to fit well with recent similar findings reported in adults. Importantly, our work was able to extend the potential link between functional brain connectivity and autistic traits to typically developing children,” Hill said.
According to the study authors, the results are evidence that resting-state EEG can be used to measure correlations between functional connectivity and autistic social trait expression in typically-developing children. “This suggests that theta connectivity could play an important role in the processing of social information,” the researchers wrote.
However, along with other limitations, the authors noted that it will be important for future work to test associations between brain connectivity and autistic traits using task-based paradigms in addition to resting-state recordings.
“One caveat is that in this study we chose to focus on connectivity within a single specific frequency band taken from the EEG recording (the theta band),” Hill explained. “This was done as recent work conducted in adults previously reported an association between connectivity and autistic traits at this frequency, so we wanted to assess if this held in children.”
“We therefore do not yet know if this finding extends to other brain frequencies. This would be an interesting topic for future work to address. Also, our results are from a sample of children spanning early-to-middle childhood (4 to 12 years of age). Exploring whether similar results can be obtained across a broader age-range in children could be an interesting next-step. ”
The study, “Right anterior theta connectivity predicts autistic social traits in typically developing children”, was authored by Aron T. Hill, Jodie Van Der Elst, Felicity J. Bigelow, Jarrad A.G. Lum, and Peter G. Enticott.