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Understanding the nature of face processing in early autism: A prospective study

By Charlotte Tye, Giorgia Bussu, Teodora Gliga, Mayada Elsabbagh, Greg Pasco, Kristinn Johnsen, Tony Charman, Emily Jones, Jan Buitelaar, Mark Johnson

Posted 11 May 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.05.06.20092619

Dimensional approaches to psychopathology interrogate the core neurocognitive domains interacting at the individual level to shape diagnostic symptoms. Embedding this approach in prospective longitudinal studies could transform our understanding of the mechanisms underlying neurodevelopmental disorders. Such designs require us to move beyond traditional group comparisons and determine which domain-specific atypicalities apply at the level of the individual, and whether they vary across distinct phenotypic subgroups. As a proof of principle, this study examines how the domain of face processing contributes to a clinical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We used an event-related potentials (ERPs) task in a cohort of 8-month-old infants with (n=148) and without (n=68) an older sibling with ASD, and combined traditional casecontrol comparisons with machine-learning techniques like supervised classification for prediction of clinical outcome at 36 months and Bayesian hierarchical clustering for stratification into subgroups. Our findings converge to indicate that a broad profile of alterations in the time-course of neural processing of faces is an early predictor of later ASD diagnosis. Furthermore, we identified two brain response-defined subgroups in ASD that showed distinct alterations in different aspects of face processing compared to siblings without ASD diagnosis, suggesting that individual differences between infants contribute to the diffuse pattern of alterations predictive of ASD in the first year of life. This study shows that moving from group-level comparisons to pattern recognition and stratification can help to understand and reduce heterogeneity in clinical cohorts, and improve our understanding of the mechanisms that lead to later neurodevelopmental outcomes.

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