Replicable Patterns of Memory Impairments in Children With Autism and Their Links to Hyperconnected Brain Circuits

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Memory impairments have profound implications for social communication and educational outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the precise nature of memory dysfunction in children with ASD and the underlying neural circuit mechanisms remain poorly understood. The default mode network (DMN) is a brain network that is associated with memory and cognitive function, and DMN dysfunction is among the most replicable and robust brain signatures of ASD.

We used a comprehensive battery of standardized episodic memory assessments and functional circuit analyses in 25 8- to 12-year-old children with ASD and 29 matched typically developing control children.

Memory performance was reduced in children with ASD compared with control children. General and face memory emerged as distinct dimensions of memory difficulties in ASD. Importantly, findings of diminished episodic memory in children with ASD were replicated in 2 independent data sets. Analysis of intrinsic functional circuits associated with the DMN revealed that general and face memory deficits were associated with distinct, hyperconnected circuits: Aberrant hippocampal connectivity predicted diminished general memory while aberrant posterior cingulate cortex connectivity predicted diminished face memory. Notably, aberrant hippocampal-posterior cingulate cortex circuitry was a common feature of diminished general and face memory in ASD.

Our results represent a comprehensive appraisal of episodic memory function in children with ASD and identify extensive and replicable patterns of memory reductions in children with ASD that are linked to dysfunction of distinct DMN-related circuits. These findings highlight a role for DMN dysfunction in ASD that extends beyond face memory to general memory function.