scMRI Reveals Large-Scale Brain Network Abnormalities in Autism
Autism is a complex neurological condition characterized by childhood onset of dysfunction in multiple cognitive domains including socio-emotional function, speech and language, and processing of internally versus externally directed stimuli. Although gross brain anatomic differences in autism are well established, recent studies investigating regional differences in brain structure and function have yielded divergent and seemingly contradictory results. How regional abnormalities relate to the
... autistic phenotype remains unclear. We hypothesized that autism exhibits distinct perturbations in network-level brain architecture, and that cognitive dysfunction may be reflected by abnormal network structure. Network-level anatomic abnormalities in autism have not been previously described. We used structural covariance MRI to investigate network-level differences in gray matter structure within two large-scale networks strongly implicated in autism, the salience network and the default mode network, in autistic subjects and age-, gender-, and IQ-matched controls. We report specific perturbations in brain network architecture in the salience and default-mode networks consistent with clinical manifestations of autism. Extent and distribution of the salience network, involved in social-emotional regulation of environmental stimuli, is restricted in autism. In contrast, posterior elements of the default mode network have increased spatial distribution, suggesting a 'posteriorization' of this network. These findings are consistent with a network-based model of autism, and suggest a unifying interpretation of previous work. Moreover, we provide evidence of specific abnormalities in brain network architecture underlying autism that are quantifiable using standard clinical MRI.