Brain hyper-reactivity to auditory novel targets in children with high-functioning autism
Although communication and social difficulties in autism have received a great deal of research attention, the other key diagnostic feature, extreme repetitive behaviour and unusual narrow interests, has been addressed less often. Also known as ‘resistance to change’ this may be related to atypical processing of infrequent, novel stimuli. This can be tested at sensory and neural levels. Our aims were to (i) examine auditory novelty detection and its neural basis in children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and (ii) test for brain activation patterns that correlate quantitatively with number of autistic traits as a test of the dimensional nature of ASC. The present study employed event-related fMRI during a novel auditory detection paradigm. Participants were twelve 10- to 15-year-old children with ASC and a group of 12 age-, IQ- and sex-matched typical controls. The ASC group responded faster to novel target stimuli. Group differences in brain activity mainly involved the right prefrontal–premotor and the left inferior parietal regions, which were more activated in the ASC group than in controls. In both groups, activation of prefrontal regions during target detection was positively correlated with Autism Spectrum Quotient scores measuring the number of autistic traits. These findings suggest that target detection in autism is associated not only with superior behavioural performance (shorter reaction time) but also with activation of a more widespread network of brain regions. This pattern also shows quantitative variation with number of autistic traits, in a continuum that extends to the normal population. This finding may shed light on the neurophysiological process underlying narrow interests and what clinically is called ‘need for sameness’.