Investigating the Association of Early Attentional Control and Autonomic Arousal in a Sample of Low- and High-Risk Infants

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 2, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
A. Kushki1, L. A. Sacrey2, V. Armstrong3, P. Szatmari4, T. Vaillancourt5, N. Garon6, L. A. Schmidt7, I. M. Smith8, S. E. Bryson9, L. Zwaigenbaum10 and J. A. Brian11, (1)Bloorview Research Institute, Toronto, ON, Canada, (2)Autism Research Centre, Edmonton, AB, CANADA, (3)IWK Health Centre / Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada, (4)The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON, Canada, (5)University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada, (6)Mount Allison University, Sackville, NB, Canada, (7)McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada, (8)Dalhousie University / IWK Health Centre, Halifax, NS, CANADA, (9)Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada, (10)University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada, (11)Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background: An emerging body of literature suggests hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). At the same time, studies of non-ASD cohorts indicate that autonomic arousal is negatively associated with attentional control, a mechanism that may contribute to the development of ASD features.

Objectives: The objective of this study was to examine the association between autonomic arousal and attentional control in a sample of high-risk infants.

Methods: Data from a sample of participants from an ongoing longitudinal study of ASD were used for the analyses. The data included infant behavioural and physiological data at three time points: 6 (n=12), 12 (n=23), and 18 months (n=8) of age. Participants were designated as high risk if they had an older sibling with ASD (n=36) or as low risk if they did not (n=7). Behavioural data included scores on items related to engagement, disengagement, and sustaining of attention on the Autism Observation Scale for Infants (AOSI; items 2 and 19) and the Autism Parent Screen for Infants (APSI; item 20). Physiological data consisted of heart rate and heart rate variability extracted from electrocardiography signals collected as participants watched a 2-minute calming video clip. Repeated measures linear regression was used to examine the association between heart rate /heart rate variability and the behavioural scores.

Results: There were no significant effects of group (high risk/low risk) or visit (6, 12, 18) on the APSI or AOSI items. The low-risk group had significantly higher heart rate variability compared to the high-risk group (low-risk: 6.1(0.6) (CL: 4.9-7.3); high-risk: 4.7(0.3) (CL: 4.2-5.2); p=0.04). Parent-reported levels of sustained attention (APSI item 20) were significantly correlated with heart rate variability (beta=-1.4(0.4); p=0.006), with lower levels of sustained attention associated with lower heart rate variability. Associations between heart rate variability and engagement/disengagement of attention scores of the AOSI were not significant. No significant associations were found between heat rate and any of the behavioural scores.

Conclusions: Consistent with findings in non-ASD samples, our preliminary results suggest that decreased levels of sustained attention may be associated with decreased heart rate variability in a sample of low- and high-risk infants. Replication with larger sample sizes is needed. Our analyses are a first step in understanding physiological underpinnings of attentional control difficulties in ASD. If replicated in a larger sample, these results may also suggest physiological differences in high-risk infants.