Cortical and subcortical alterations associated with precision visuomotor behavior in individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Kathryn E. Unruh, Laura E. Martin, Grant Magnon, David E. Vaillancourt, John A. Sweeney, Matthew W. Mosconi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


In addition to core deficits in social-communication abilities and repetitive behaviors and interests, many patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience developmental comorbidities, including sensorimotor issues. Sensorimotor issues are common in ASD and associated with more severe clinical symptoms. Importantly, sensorimotor behaviors are precisely quantifiable and highly translational, offering promising targets for neurophysiological studies of ASD. We used functional MRI to identify brain regions associated with sensorimotor behavior using a visually guided precision gripping task in individuals with ASD (n = 20) and age-, IQ-, and handedness-matched controls (n = 18). During visuomotor behavior, individuals with ASD showed greater force variability than controls. The blood oxygen level-dependent signal for multiple cortical and subcortical regions was associated with force variability, including motor and premotor cortex, posterior parietal cortex, extrastriate cortex, putamen, and cerebellum. Activation in the right premotor cortex scaled with sensorimotor variability in controls but not in ASD. Individuals with ASD showed greater activation than controls in left putamen and left cerebellar lobule VIIb, and activation in these regions was associated with more severe clinically rated symptoms of ASD. Together, these results suggest that greater sensorimotor variability in ASD is associated with altered cortical-striatal processes supporting action selection and cortical-cerebellar circuits involved in feedback-guided reactive adjustments of motor output. Our findings also indicate that atypical organization of visuomotor cortical circuits may result in heightened reliance on subcortical circuits typically dedicated to motor skill acquisition. Overall, these results provide new evidence that sensorimotor alterations in ASD involve aberrant cortical and subcortical organization that may contribute to key clinical issues in patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1330-1341
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2019


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cerebellum
  • Precision grip
  • Putamen
  • Sensorimotor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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