Autism Journal Club

Data-driven identification of subtypes of executive function across typical development, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism spectrum disorder

Sarune Savickaite will be presenting paper by Vaidya et al (2020) Background: Impairment of executive function (EF), the goal-directed regulation of thoughts, actions, and emotions, drives negative outcomes and is common across neurodevelopmental disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A primary challenge to its amelioration is heterogeneity in symptom expression within and across disorders. Parsing this heterogeneity is necessary to attain diagnostic precision, a goal of the NIMH Research Domain Criteria Initiative. We aimed to identify transdiagnostic subtypes of EF that span the normal to impaired spectrum and establish their predictive and neurobiological validity. Methods: Community detection was applied to clinical parent-report measures in 8–14-year-old children with and without ADHD and ASD from two independent cohorts (discovery N = 320; replication N = 692) to identify subgroups with distinct behavioral profiles. Support vector machine (SVM) classification was used to predict subgroup membership of unseen cases. Preliminary neurobiological validation was obtained with existing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data on a subsample (N = 84) by testing hypotheses about sensitivity of EF subgroups versus DSM categories. Results: We observed three transdiagnostic EF subtypes characterized by behavioral profiles that were defined by relative weakness in: (a) flexibility and emotion regulation; (b) inhibition; and (c) working memory, organization, and planning. The same tripartite structure was also present in the typically developing children. SVM trained on the discovery sample and tested on the replication sample classified subgroup membership with 77.0% accuracy. Split-half SVM classification on the combined sample (N = 1,012) yielded 88.9% accuracy (this SVM is available for public use). As hypothesized, frontal-parietal engagement was better distinguished by EF subtype than DSM diagnosis and the subgroup characterized with inflexibility failed to modulate right IPL activation in response to increased executive demands. Conclusions: The observed transdiagnostic subtypes refine current diagnostic nosology and augment clinical decision-making for personalizing treatment of executive dysfunction in children.