Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is more prevalent in males than in females, but the neurobiological mechanisms that give rise to this sex-bias are poorly understood. The female protective hypothesis suggests that the manifestation of ASD in females requires higher cumulative genetic and environmental risk relative to males. Here, we test this hypothesis by assessing the additive impact of several ASD-associated OXTR variants on reward network resting-state functional connectivity in males and females with and without ASD, and explore how genotype, sex, and diagnosis relate to heterogeneity in neuroendophenotypes. Females with ASD who carried a greater number of ASD-associated risk alleles in the OXTR gene showed greater functional connectivity between the nucleus accumbens (NAcc; hub of the reward network) and subcortical brain areas important for motor learning. Relative to males with ASD, females with ASD and higher OXTR risk-allele-dosage showed increased connectivity between the NAcc, subcortical regions, and prefrontal brain areas involved in mentalizing. This increased connectivity between NAcc and prefrontal cortex mirrored the relationship between genetic risk and brain connectivity observed in neurotypical males showing that, under increased OXTR genetic risk load, females with ASD and neurotypical males displayed increased connectivity between reward-related brain regions and prefrontal cortex. These results indicate that females with ASD differentially modulate the effects of increased genetic risk on brain connectivity relative to males with ASD, providing new insights into the neurobiological mechanisms through which the female protective effect may manifest.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Psychiatry and Mental health
- Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
- Biological Psychiatry