Uncharacteristic task-evoked pupillary responses implicate atypical locus ceruleus activity in autism

Michael C. Granovetter, Charlie S. Burlingham, Nicholas M. Blauch, Nancy J. Minshew, David J. Heeger, Marlene Behrmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized partly by atypical attentional engagement, reflected in exaggerated and variable responses to sensory stimuli. Attentional engagement is known to be regulated by the locus ceruleus (LC). Moderate baseline LC activity globally dampens neural responsivity and is associated with adaptive deployment and narrowing of attention to task-relevant stimuli. In contrast, increased baseline LC activity enhances neural responsivity across cortex and widening of attention to environmental stimuli regardless of their task relevance. Given attentional atypicalities in ASD, this study is the first to evaluate whether, under different attentional task demands, individuals with ASD exhibit a different profile of LC activity compared with typically developing controls. Males and females with ASD and age- and gender-matched controls participated in a one-back letter detection test while task-evoked pupillary responses, an established correlate for LC activity, were recorded. Participants completed this task in two conditions, either in the absence or presence of distractor auditory tones. Compared with controls, individuals with ASD evinced atypical pupillary responses in the presence versus absence of distractors. Notably, this atypical pupillary profile was evident despite the fact that both groups exhibited equivalent task performance. Moreover, between-group differences in pupillary responses were observed specifically in response to task-relevant events, providing confirmation that the group differences most likely were specifically associated with distinctions in LC activity. These findings suggest that individuals with ASD show atypical modulation of LC activity with changes in attentional demands, offering a possible mechanistic and neurobiological account for attentional atypicalities in ASD. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit atypical attentional behaviors, including altered sensory responses and atypical fixedness, but the neural mechanism underlying these behaviors remains elusive. One candidate mechanism is atypical locus ceruleus (LC) activity, as the LC plays a critical role in attentional modulation. Specifically, LC activity is involved in regulating the trade-off between environmental exploration and focused attention. This study shows that, under tightly controlled conditions, task-evoked pupil responses, an LC activity proxy, are lower in individuals with ASD than in controls, but only in the presence of task-irrelevant stimuli. This suggests that individuals with ASD evince atypical modulation of LC activity in accordance with changes in attentional demands, offering a mechanistic account for attentional atypicalities in ASD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3815-3826
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number19
StatePublished - May 6 2020


  • Attention
  • Autism
  • Excitation-inhibition
  • Locus ceruleus
  • Neural gain
  • Pupillometry
  • Locus Coeruleus/physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder/physiopathology
  • Male
  • Reflex, Pupillary/physiology
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Attention/physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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