Projections between the thalamus and sensory cortices are established early in development and play an important role in sleep regulation as well as in relaying sensory information to cortex. Atypical thalamocortical functional connectivity frequently observed in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) might therefore be linked to sensory and sleep problems common in ASD. Here we investigated the relationship between auditory-thalamic functional connectivity measured during natural sleep fMRI, sleep problems, and sound sensitivities in 70 toddlers and preschoolers (1.5 to 5-year-olds) with ASD compared to a matched group of 46 typically developing (TD) children. In children with ASD, sleep problems and sensory sensitivities were positively correlated, and increased sleep latency was associated with overconnectivity between the thalamus and auditory cortex in a subsample with high quality MRI data (n=29). Additionally, auditory cortex BOLD signal amplitude was elevated in children with ASD, potentially reflecting reduced sensory gating or a lack of auditory habituation during natural sleep. These findings indicate that atypical thalamocortical functional connectivity can be detected early in development and may play a crucial role in sleep problems and sensory sensitivities in ASD.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience