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The Cerebellum and Autism: Imaging and Clinical Evidence

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:30
Auditorium (Kursaal Centre)
C. J. Stoodley, Psychology, American University, Washington, DC
Background: Cerebellar structural and functional differences have been described in autism, but it is not clear how these differences contribute to the etiology and specific symptoms of the disorder. Recently, it has been established that a functional topography exists in the human cerebellum: different cerebellar regions process different types of information based on the connectivity of specific areas of the cerebellum with sensorimotor, cognitive and affective processing regions of the cerebral cortex. These findings offer a new theoretical framework within which we can examine the potential role of the cerebellum in autism.

Objectives: In a series of three studies, we aimed to establish the structure-behavior relationships in the cerebellum for individuals with autism as well as a comparison group of children with cerebellar damage due to tumor removal.  

Methods: The first study examined the convergence of structural findings in the cerebellum from published neuroimaging studies by conducting an activation-likelihood estimate meta-analysis. The second study analyzed gray-matter differences in children with autism compared to age-matched control group with voxel based morphometry. The third study examined whether children with cerebellar damage following tumor removal show autism-like symptoms, depending on the region of the cerebellum that was damaged. To do this, we performed voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping in a group of pediatric cerebellar patients.

Results: In the first study, the main cerebellar region found to have abnormal gray matter in ASD is associated with social and emotional processing and the default mode network in healthy and clinical populations. The results of the second two studies are pending final analyses. We predict that we will show convergence between the meta-analysis results, the prospective voxel-based morphometry findings, and the regions of the cerebellum that, when damaged, yield autism-like symptoms.

Conclusions: Cerebellar dysfunction has been described in several developmental disorders, including attention deficit disorder, developmental dyslexia, and autism, yet different cerebellar regions are implicated in each disorder. Data from autistic and cerebellar patient populations provides the opportunity to examine how these cerebellar differences contribute to the hallmark symptoms of autism in social, language, and motor domains.

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