Objectives: The purpose of this study was to examine differences in brain response to mildly aversive sensory stimuli in children with ASD and TD children.
Methods: Participants were 11 children and adolescents with ASD and 11 TD controls, between 8-17 years. During fMRI, participants were presented with mildly aversive auditory (white noise) and visual (a continually rotating color wheel) stimuli. Each stimulus trial was 3 seconds long and consisted of either the auditory stimulus, visual stimulus, or both. Each trial type was presented 12 times. After the fMRI scan, participants were asked to rate on a scale from 1-10 how much each trial type bothered them and how much they wanted each trial type to stop. Participants’ mothers rated their symptoms of SOR with the Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999) and Sensory Over-Responsivity Inventory (Schoen et al., 2008).
Results: The ASD group was rated as having significantly higher symptoms of SOR than the TD group. During the fMRI task, both groups showed significant activity in visual and auditory cortices. However, during the visual task, the ASD group showed significantly more activation in the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus and downstream primary and secondary visual cortex. During the auditory task, the ASD group showed significantly more activation in the amygdala and auditory cortex.
Conclusions: Findings suggest that children with ASD exhibit hyperactivation of the thalamus and amygdala while processing mildly aversive sensory stimuli. A lack of inhibition and/or habituation of these areas may lead to hyperactivity of the sensory cortical areas and may thus be more likely to lead to a sense of overstimulation These findings support theories that SOR is related to abnormal thalamus and amygdala activity and that there may be a bottom up abnormality in primary sensory modulation.
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