Alterations in resting state connectivity along the autism trait continuum: a twin study

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been found to be associated with alterations in resting state (RS) functional connectivity, including areas forming the default mode network (DMN) and salience network (SN). However, insufficient control for confounding genetic and environmental influences and other methodological issues limit the generalizability of previous findings. Moreover, it has been hypothesized that ASD might be marked by early hyper-connectivity followed by later hypo-connectivity. To date, only a few studies have explicitly tested age-related influences on RS connectivity alterations in ASD. Using a within-twin pair design (N = 150 twins; 8-23 years), we examined altered RS connectivity between core regions of the DMN and SN in relation to autistic trait severity and age in a sample of monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins showing typical development, ASD or other neurodevelopmental conditions. Connectivity between core regions of the SN was stronger in twins with higher autistic traits compared to their co-twins. This effect was significant both in the total sample and in MZ twins alone, highlighting the effect of non-shared environmental factors on the link between SN-connectivity and autistic traits. While this link was strongest in children, we did not identify differences between age groups for the SN. In contrast, connectivity between core hubs of the DMN was negatively correlated with autistic traits in adolescents and showed a similar trend in adults but not in children. The results support hypotheses of age-dependent altered RS connectivity in ASD, making altered SN and DMN connectivity promising candidate biomarkers for ASD.

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