The cerebellar vermis (lobules VI-VII) has been implicated in both postmortem and neuroimaging studies of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This region maintains the consistent accuracy of saccadic eye movements and plays an especially important role in correcting systematic errors in saccade amplitudes such as those induced by adaptation paradigms. Saccade adaptation paradigms have not yet been used to study ASD. Fifty-six individuals with ASD and 53 age-matched healthy controls performed an intrasaccadic target displacement task known to elicit saccadic adaptation reflected in an amplitude reduction. The rate of amplitude reduction and the variability of saccade amplitude across 180 adaptation trials were examined. Individuals with ASD adapted slower than healthy controls, and demonstrated more variability of their saccade amplitudes across trials prior to, during and after adaptation. Thirty percent of individuals with ASD did not significantly adapt, whereas only 6% of healthy controls failed to adapt. Adaptation rate and amplitude variability impairments were related to performance on a traditional neuropsychological test of manual motor control. The profile of impaired adaptation and reduced consistency of saccade accuracy indicates reduced neural plasticity within learning circuits of the oculomotor vermis that impedes the fine-tuning of motor behavior in ASD. These data provide functional evidence of abnormality in the cerebellar vermis that converges with previous reports of cellular and gross anatomic dysmorphology of this brain region in ASD.
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