A stable pattern of EEG spectral coherence distinguishes children with autism from neuro- typical controls - a large case control study

Duffy and Als BMC Medicine 2012, 10:64  1741-7015/10/64 (26 June 2012)

Background: The autism rate has recently increased to 1 in 100 children. Genetic studies demonstrate poorly understood complexity. Environmental factors apparently also play a role. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies demonstrate increased brain sizes and altered connectivity. Electroencephalogram (EEG) coherence studies confirm connectivity changes. However, genetic-, MRI- and/or EEG-based diagnostic tests are not yet available. The varied study results likely reflect methodological and population differences, small samples and, for EEG, lack of attention to group-specific artifact.

Methods: Of the 1,304 subjects who participated in this study, with ages ranging from 1 to 18 years old and assessed with comparable EEG studies, 463 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD); 571 children were neuro-typical controls (C). After artifact management, principal components analysis (PCA) identified EEG spectral coherence factors with corresponding loading patterns. The 2- to 12-year-old subsample consisted of 430 ASD- and 554 C-group subjects (n = 984). Discriminant function analysis (DFA) determined the spectral coherence factors’ discrimination success for the two groups. Loading patterns on the DFA-selected coherence factors described ASD-specific coherence differences when compared to controls.

Results: Total sample PCA of coherence data identified 40 factors which explained 50.8% of the total population variance. For the 2- to 12-year-olds, the 40 factors showed highly significant group differences (P < 0.0001). Ten randomly generated split half replications demonstrated high-average classification success (C, 88.5%; ASD, 86.0%). Still higher success was obtained in the more restricted age sub-samples using the jackknifing technique: 2- to 4- year-olds (C, 90.6%; ASD, 98.1%); 4- to 6-year-olds (C, 90.9%; ASD 99.1%); and 6- to 12-year-olds (C, 98.7%; ASD, 93.9%). Coherence loadings demonstrated reduced short-distance and reduced, as well as increased, long-distance coherences for the ASD-groups, when compared to the controls. Average spectral loading per factor was wide (10.1 Hz).

Conclusions: Classification success suggests a stable coherence loading pattern that differentiates ASD- from C- group subjects. This might constitute an EEG coherence-based phenotype of childhood autism. The predominantly reduced short-distance coherences may indicate poor local network function. The increased long-distance coherences may represent compensatory processes or reduced neural pruning. The wide average spectral range of factor loadings may suggest over-damped neural networks.