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Open Access Research article

Abnormalities in gamma-band responses to language stimuli in first-degree relatives of children with autism spectrum disorder: an MEG study

Kristina L McFadden1, Susan Hepburn12, Erin Winterrowd3, Gwenda L Schmidt4 and Donald C Rojas1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, 13001 E. 17th Place, Aurora, CO, 80045, USA

2 JFK Partners at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, 13121 E. 17th Ave, Aurora, CO, 80045, USA

3 Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, 800 Algoma Blvd, Oshkosh, WI, 54901, USA

4 Department of Psychology, Hope College, 35 E 12th St, Holland, MI, 49423, USA

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:213  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-213

Published: 29 November 2012

Abstract

Background

Synchronous neural oscillatory activity in the gamma range (30–80 Hz) has been shown to be abnormal in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their first-degree relatives in response to simple auditory stimuli. Gamma-band abnormalities in ASD probands have been seen in response to language stimuli, but this has not been investigated in first-degree relatives. This is of particular interest given that language impairments are a core symptom of ASD and may be part of the broad autism phenotype (BAP) seen in relatives.

Methods

Magnetoencephalography recordings during a continuous word recognition task were obtained for 23 parents of a child with ASD (pASD) and 28 adult control participants. Total and evoked gamma-band activity, as well as inter-trial phase-locking factor (PLF), were measured in response to the task. Beta-band activity was also measured, due to its suggested role in language processing. Participants completed a series of language measures to assess the relationship between brain activity and language function, and lateralization of task-related activity was assessed.

Results

The pASD group showed increased evoked gamma and beta activity, while controls had decreased evoked activity. Additionally, while both groups showed a reduction in total gamma power (commonly seen in language tasks), this reduction was more prominent in the control group. The pASD group demonstrated significantly worse performance on a measure of phonology compared to controls. Significant but distinct relationships were found between gamma/beta activity and language measures within the two groups. In addition, while the overall task generally elicited left lateralized responses, pASD showed greater left lateralization than controls in some regions of interest.

Conclusions

Abnormalities in oscillatory responses to language were seen in pASD that are consistent with previous findings in ASD probands. Gamma-band responses to language stimuli have not previously been assessed in first-degree relatives of ASD probands and these findings are supportive of gamma-band activity as a heritable, neurophysiological biomarker of ASD. The possible relationship seen between language function and neural activity in the current study should be investigated further to assess if oscillatory response abnormalities may contribute to behavioural manifestations of the BAP.