Functional connectivity for an “Island of sparing” in autism spectrum disorder: An fMRI study of visual search

Authors

  • Brandon Keehn,

    1. Brain Development Imaging Laboratory, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
    2. Joint Doctoral Program in Language and Communicative Disorders, San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California
    3. Research on Aging and Development Laboratory, Department of Neurosciences, University of California San Diego, San Diego, California
    4. Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience, Division of Developmental Medicine, Children's Hospital Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Patricia Shih,

    1. Brain Development Imaging Laboratory, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
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  • Laurie A. Brenner,

    1. Brain Development Imaging Laboratory, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
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  • Jeanne Townsend,

    1. Research on Aging and Development Laboratory, Department of Neurosciences, University of California San Diego, San Diego, California
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  • Ralph-Axel Müller

    Corresponding author
    • Brain Development Imaging Laboratory, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
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Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, MC1863, 6363 Alvarado Ct. No. 200, San Diego, California 92120. E-mail: amueller@sciences.sdsu.edu

Abstract

Although autism is usually characterized with respect to sociocommunicative impairments, visual search is known as a domain of relative performance strength in this disorder. This study used functional MRI during visual search in children with autism spectrum disorder (n = 19; mean age = 13;10) and matched typically developing children (n = 19; mean age = 14;0). We selected regions of interest within two attentional networks known to play a crucial role in visual search processes, such as goal-directed selective attention, filtering of irrelevant distractors, and detection of behaviorally-relevant information, and examined activation and connectivity within and between these attentional networks. Additionally, based on prior research suggesting links between visual search abilities and autism symptomatology, we tested for correlations between sociocommunicative impairments and behavioral and neural indices of search. Contrary to many previous functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging studies of autism that reported functional underconnectivity for task domains of weakness, we found atypically increased connectivity within and between attentional networks in autism. Additionally, we found increased functional connectivity for occipital regions, both locally and for long-distance connections with frontal regions. Both behavioral and neural indices of search were correlated with sociocommunicative impairment in children with autism. This association suggests that strengths in nonsocial visuospatial processing may be related to the development of core autistic sociocommunicative impairments. Hum Brain Mapp 34:2524–2537, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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