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Growth-related neural reorganization and the autism phenotype: a test of the hypothesis that altered brain growth leads to altered connectivity


Address for correspondence: John D. Lewis, Department of Cognitive Science, UC San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA, 92093-0515, USA; e-mail:


Theoretical considerations, and findings from computational modeling, comparative neuroanatomy and developmental neuroscience, motivate the hypothesis that a deviant brain growth trajectory will lead to deviant patterns of change in cortico-cortical connectivity. Differences in brain size during development will alter the relative cost and effectiveness of short- and long-distance connections, and should thus impact the growth and retention of connections. Reduced brain size should favor long-distance connectivity; brain overgrowth should favor short-distance connectivity; and inconsistent deviations from the normal growth trajectory – as occurs in autism – should result in potentially disruptive changes to established patterns of functional and physical connectivity during development. To explore this hypothesis, neural networks which modeled inter-hemispheric interaction were grown at the rate of either typically developing children or children with autism. The influence of the length of the inter-hemispheric connections was analyzed at multiple developmental time-points. The networks that modeled autistic growth were less affected by removal of the inter-hemispheric connections than those that modeled normal growth – indicating a reduced reliance on long-distance connections – for short response times, and this difference increased substantially at approximately 24 simulated months of age. The performance of the networks showed a corresponding decline during development. And direct analysis of the connection weights showed a parallel reduction in connectivity. These modeling results support the hypothesis that the deviant growth trajectory in autism spectrum disorders may lead to a disruption of established patterns of functional connectivity during development, with potentially negative behavioral consequences, and a subsequent reduction in physical connectivity. The results are discussed in relation to the growing body of evidence of reduced functional and structural connectivity in autism, and in relation to the behavioral phenotype, particularly the developmental aspects.