Changes in intrinsic local connectivity after reading intervention in children with autism
Most of the existing behavioral and cognitive intervention programs in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have not been tested at the neurobiological level, thus falling short of finding quantifiable neurobiological changes underlying behavioral improvement. The current study takes a translational neuroimaging approach to test the impact of a structured visual imagery-based reading intervention on improving reading comprehension and assessing its underlying local neural circuitry. Behavioral and resting state functional MRI (rs-fMRI) data were collected from children with ASD who were randomly assigned to an Experimental group (ASD-EXP; n = 14) and a Wait-list control group (ASD-WLC; n = 14). Participants went through an established reading intervention training program (Visualizing and Verbalizing for language comprehension and thinking or V/V; 4-h per day, 10-weeks, 200 h of face-to-face instruction). Local functional connectivity was examined using a connection density approach from graph theory focusing on brain areas considered part of the Reading Network. The main results are as follows: (I) the ASD-EXP group showed significant improvement, compared to the ASD-WLC group, in their reading comprehension ability evidenced from change in comprehension scores; (II) the ASD-EXP group showed increased local brain connectivity in Reading Network regions compared to the ASD-WLC group post-intervention; (III) intervention-related changes in local brain connectivity were observed in the ASD-EXP from pre to post-intervention; and (IV) improvement in language comprehension significantly predicted changes in local connectivity. The findings of this study provide novel insights into brain plasticity in children with developmental disorders using targeted intervention programs.