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BACKGROUND: Children with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) exhibit a shared phenotype that involves executive dysfunctions including impairments in mental flexibility (MF). It is of interest to understand if this phenotype stems from some shared neurobiology. METHODS: To investigate this possibility, we used magnetoencephalography (MEG) neuroimaging to compare brain activity in children (n = 88; 8-15 years) with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as they completed a set-shifting/mental flexibility task. RESULTS: Neuroimaging results revealed a similar parietal activation profile across the NDD, groups suggesting a link to their shared phenotype. Differences in frontal activity differentiated the three clinical groups. Brain-behaviour analyses showed a link with repetitive behaviours suggesting shared dysfunction in the associative loop of the corticostriatal system. CONCLUSION: Our study supports the notion that NDDs may exist along a complex phenotypic/biological continuum. All NDD groups showed a sustained parietal activity profile suggesting that they share a strong reliance on the posterior parietal cortices to complete the mental flexibility task; future studies could elucidate whether this is due to delayed brain development or compensatory functioning. The differences in frontal activity may play a role in differentiating the NDDs. The OCD group showed sustained prefrontal activity that may be reflective of hyperfrontality. The ASD group showed reduced frontal activation suggestive of frontal dysfunction and the ADHD group showed an extensive hypoactivity that included frontal and parietal regions. Brain-behaviour analyses showed a significant correlation with repetitive behaviours which may reflect dysfunction in the associative loop of the corticostriatal system, linked to inflexible behaviours.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurodev Disord

Publication Date





ADHD, ASD, Corticostriatal projections, Executive function, MEG, Neurodevelopmental disorders, OCD, RBS-R, Set shifting, TOCS, Adolescent, Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Cortex, Child, Executive Function, Female, Humans, Magnetoencephalography, Male, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Psychomotor Performance