Greater Individual Variability in Functional Brain Activity during Working Memory Performance in young people with Autism and Executive Function Impairment
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BACKGROUND: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often present with executive functioning (EF) deficits, including spatial working memory (SWM) impairment, which impedes real-world functioning. The present study examined task-related brain activity, connectivity and individual variability in fMRI-measured neural response during an SWM task in older youth and young adults with autism and clinically significant EF impairment. METHODS: Neuroimaging was analyzed in 29 individuals with ASD without intellectual disability who had clinically significant EF impairment on the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, and 20 typically developing controls (participant age range=16-34). An SWM N-Back task was performed during fMRI. SWM activity (2-Back vs. 0-Back) and task-related dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) connectivity was examined within and between groups. Variability of neural response during SWM was also examined. RESULTS: During SWM performance both groups activated the expected networks, and no group differences in network activation or task-related DLPFC-connectivity were found. However, greater individual variability in the pattern of SWM activity was found in the ASD versus the typically developing control group. CONCLUSIONS: While there were no group differences in SWM task-evoked activity or connectivity, fronto-parietal network engagement was found to be more variable/idiosyncratic in ASD. Our results suggest that the fronto-parietal network may be shifted or sub-optimally engaged during SWM performance in participants with ASD with clinically significant EF impairment, with implications for developing targeted interventions for this subgroup.
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