Altered excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission has been implicated in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Interventions using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to enhance or inhibit cortical excitability are under study for various targets, though the mechanistic effects of rTMS have yet to be examined in ASD. Here, we examined whether an excitatory rTMS treatment course modulates glutamatergic (Glx) or γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) metabolite levels in emerging adults with ASD. Twenty-eight participants with ASD and executive function impairment [23.3 ± 4.69 years; seven-female] underwent two magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) scans of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). MRS scans were acquired before and after participants with ASD were randomized to receive a 20-session course of active or sham rTMS to the DLPFC. Baseline MRS data was available for 19 typically developing controls [23.8 ± 4.47 years; six-female]. Metabolite levels for Glx and GABA+ were compared between ASD and control groups, at baseline, and metabolite level change, pre-to-post-rTMS treatment, was compared in ASD participants that underwent active vs. sham rTMS. Absolute change in Glx was greater in the active vs. sham-rTMS group [F(1,19) = 6.54, p = 0.02], though the absolute change in GABA+ did not differ between groups. We also examined how baseline metabolite levels related to pre/post-rTMS metabolite level change, in the active vs. sham groups. rTMS group moderated the relation between baseline Glx and pre-to-post-rTMS Glx change, such that baseline Glx predicted Glx change in the active-rTMS group only [b = 1.52, SE = 0.32, t(18) = 4.74, p < 0.001]; Glx levels increased when baseline levels were lower, and decreased when baseline levels were higher. Our results indicate that an interventional course of excitatory rTMS to the DLPFC may modulate local Glx levels in emerging adults with ASD, and align with prior reports of glutamatergic alterations following rTMS. Interventional studies that track glutamatergic markers may provide mechanistic insights into the therapeutic potential of rTMS in ASD. Clinical Trial Registration: Clinicaltrials.gov (ID: NCT02311751), https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02311751?term=ameis&rank=1; NCT02311751.
ASJC Scopus subject areas