Selective or ‘picky’ eating habits are common among those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These behaviors are often related to aberrant sensory experience in individuals with ASD, including heightened reactivity to food taste and texture. However, very little is known about the neural mechanisms that underlie taste reactivity in ASD. In the present study, food-related neural responses were evaluated in 21 young adult and adolescent males diagnosed with ASD without intellectual disability, and 21 typically-developing (TD) controls. Taste reactivity was assessed using the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile, a clinical self-report measure. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to evaluate hemodynamic responses to sweet (vs. neutral) tastants and food pictures. Subjects also underwent resting-state functional connectivity scans. The ASD and TD individuals did not differ in their hemodynamic response to gustatory stimuli. However, the ASD subjects, but not the controls, exhibited a positive association between self-reported taste reactivity and the response to sweet tastants within the insular cortex and multiple brain regions associated with gustatory perception and reward. There was a strong interaction between diagnostic group and taste reactivity on tastant response in brain regions associated with ASD pathophysiology, including the bilateral anterior superior temporal sulcus (STS). This interaction of diagnosis and taste reactivity was also observed in the resting state functional connectivity between the anterior STS and dorsal mid-insula (i.e., gustatory cortex). These results suggest that self-reported heightened taste reactivity in ASD is associated with heightened brain responses to food-related stimuli and atypical functional connectivity of primary gustatory cortex, which may predispose these individuals to maladaptive and unhealthy patterns of selective eating behavior. Trial registration: (clinicaltrials.gov identifier) NCT01031407. Registered: December 14, 2009.
- Superior temporal sulcus