Inter-trial theta phase consistency during face processing in infants is associated with later emerging autism.
A growing body of research suggests that consistency in cortical activity may be a promising neurophysiological marker of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In the current study we examined inter-trial coherence, a measure of phase consistency across trials, in the theta range (t-ITC: 3-6 Hz), as theta has been implicated in the processing of social and emotional stimuli in infants and adults. The sample included infants who had an older sibling with a confirmed ASD diagnosis and typically developing (TD) infants with no family history of ASD. The data were collected as part of the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS) study. Infants between 6 and 10 months of age (Mage = 7.34, SDage = 1.21) performed a visual face processing task that included faces and scrambled, "face noise", stimuli. Follow-up assessments in higher likelihood infants were completed at 24 and again at 36 months to determine diagnostic outcomes. Analysis focused on posterior t-ITC during early (0-200 ms) and late (200-500 ms) visual processing stages commonly investigated in infant studies. t-ITC over posterior scalp regions during late stage face processing was significantly higher in TD and higher likelihood infants without ASD (HRA-), indicating reduced consistency in theta-band responses in higher likelihood infants who eventually receive a diagnosis of ASD (HRA+). These findings indicate that the temporal dynamics of theta during face processing relate to ASD outcomes. Reduced consistency of oscillatory dynamics at basic levels of infant sensory processing could have downstream effects on learning and social communication. LAY SUMMARY: We examined the consistency in brain responses to faces in infants at lower or higher familial likelihood for autism. Our results show that the consistency of EEG responses was lower during face processing in higher likelihood infants who eventually received a diagnosis of autism. These findings highlight that reduced consistency in brain activity during face processing in the first year of life is related to emerging autism.