Sustained attention problems are common in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and may have significant implications for the diagnosis and management of ASD and associated comorbidities. Furthermore, ASD has been associated with atypical structural brain development. The authors used functional MRI to investigate the functional brain maturation of attention between childhood and adulthood in people with ASD.
Using a parametrically modulated sustained attention/vigilance task, the authors examined brain activation and its linear correlation with age between childhood and adulthood in 46 healthy male adolescents and adults (ages 11–35 years) with ASD and 44 age- and IQ-matched typically developing comparison subjects.
Relative to the comparison group, the ASD group had significantly poorer task performance and significantly lower activation in inferior prefrontal cortical, medial prefrontal cortical, striato-thalamic, and lateral cerebellar regions. A conjunction analysis of this analysis with group differences in brain-age correlations showed that the comparison group, but not the ASD group, had significantly progressively increased activation with age in these regions between childhood and adulthood, suggesting abnormal functional brain maturation in ASD. Several regions that showed both abnormal activation and functional maturation were associated with poorer task performance and clinical measures of ASD and inattention.
The results provide first evidence that abnormalities in sustained attention networks in individuals with ASD are associated with underlying abnormalities in the functional brain maturation of these networks between late childhood and adulthood.