Amygdala habituation and prefrontal functional connectivity in youth with autism spectrum disorders

OBJECTIVE: Amygdala habituation, the rapid decrease in amygdala responsiveness to the repeated presentation of stimuli, is fundamental to the nervous system. Habituation is important for maintaining adaptive levels of arousal to predictable social stimuli and decreased habituation is associated with heightened anxiety. Input from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) regulates amygdala activity. Although previous research has shown abnormal amygdala function in youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), no study has examined amygdala habituation in a young sample or whether habituation is related to amygdala connectivity with the vmPFC. METHOD: Data were analyzed from 32 children and adolescents with ASD and 56 typically developing controls who underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while performing a gender identification task for faces that were fearful, happy, sad, or neutral. Habituation was tested by comparing amygdala activation to faces during the first half versus the second half of the session. VmPFC-amygdala connectivity was examined through psychophysiologic interaction analysis. RESULTS: Youth with ASD had decreased amygdala habituation to sad and neutral faces compared with controls. Moreover, decreased amygdala habituation correlated with autism severity as measured by the Social Responsiveness Scale. There was a group difference in vmPFC-amygdala connectivity while viewing sad faces, and connectivity predicted amygdala habituation to sad faces in controls. CONCLUSIONS: Sustained amygdala activation to faces suggests that repeated face presentations are processed differently in individuals with ASD, which could contribute to social impairments. Abnormal modulation of the amygdala by the vmPFC may play a role in decreased habituation.