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Neonatal Brainstem Function and 4-Month Arousal-Modulated Attention Are Jointly Associated With Autism


  • Drs. Cohen and Gardner contributed equally to this manuscript.
  • This research was supported by funds from NYS Legislative Grant (Cohen), and NICHD grant #PO1-HD047281-04 (Gardner).

Address for correspondence and reprints: Ira L. Cohen, Department of Psychology, New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, 1050 Forest Hill Rd., Staten Island, NY 10314. E-mail:


The authors evaluated the contribution of initially abnormal neonatal auditory brainstem responses (ABRs) and 4-month arousal-modulated attention visual preference to later autism spectrum disorder (ASD) behaviors in neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) graduates. A longitudinal study design was used to compare NICU graduates with normal ABRs (n = 28) to those with initially abnormal ABRs (n = 46) that later resolved. At 4 months postterm age, visual preference (measured after feeding) for a random check pattern flashing at 1, 3, or 8 Hz and gestational age (GA) served as additional predictors. Outcome measures were PDD Behavior Inventory (PDDBI) scores at 3.4 years (standard deviation = 1.2), and developmental quotients (DQ) obtained around the same age with the Griffiths Mental Development Scales (GMDS). Preferences for higher rates of stimulation at 4 months were highly correlated with PDDBI scores (all P-values < 0.01) and the GMDS Hearing and Speech DQ, but only in those with initially abnormal ABRs. Effects were strongest for a PDDBI social competence measure most associated with a diagnosis of autism. For those with abnormal ABRs, increases in preference for higher rates of stimulation as infants were linked to nonlinear increases in severity of ASD at 3 years and to an ASD diagnosis. Abnormal ABRs were associated with later reports of repetitive and ritualistic behaviors irrespective of 4-month preference for stimulation. The joint occurrence of initially abnormal neonatal ABRs and preference for more stimulation at 4 months, both indices of early brainstem dysfunction, may be a marker for the development of autism in this cohort. Autism Res 2012, ●●:●●–●●. © 2012 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.