Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is marked by social disability and is associated with dysfunction in brain circuits supporting social cue perception. The degree to which neural functioning reflects individual-level behavioral phenotype is unclear, slowing the search for functional neuroimaging biomarkers of ASD.
To examine whether quantified neural function in social perception circuits may serve as an individual-level marker of ASD in children and adolescents.
Design, Setting, and Participants
The cohort study was conducted at the Yale Child Study Center and involved children and adolescents diagnosed as having ASD and typically developing participants. Participants included a discovery cohort and a larger replication cohort. Individual-level social perception circuit functioning was assessed as functional magnetic resonance imaging brain responses to point-light displays of coherent vs scrambled human motion.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Outcome measures included performance of quantified brain responses in affected male and female participants in terms of area under the receiver operating characteristic curve (AUC), sensitivity and specificity, and correlations between brain responses and social behavior.
Of the 39 participants in the discovery cohort aged 4 to 17 years, 22 had ASD and 30 were boys. Of the 75 participants in the replication cohort aged 7 to 20 years, 37 had ASD and 52 were boys. A relative reduction in social perception circuit responses was identified in discovery cohort boys with ASD at an AUC of 0.75 (95% CI, 0.52-0.89; P = .01); however, typically developing girls and girls with ASD could not be distinguished (P = .54). The results were confirmed in the replication cohort, where brain responses were identified in boys with ASD at an AUC of 0.79 (95% CI, 0.64-0.91; P < .001) and failed to distinguish affected and unaffected girls (P = .82). Across both cohorts, boys were identified at an AUC of 0.77 (95% CI, 0.64-0.86) with corresponding sensitivity and specificity of 76% each. Additionally, brain responses were associated with social behavior in boys but not in girls.
Conclusions and Relevance
Quantified social perception circuit activity is a promising individual-level candidate neural marker of the male ASD behavioral phenotype. Our findings highlight the need to better understand effects of sex on social perception processing in relation to ASD phenotype manifestations.