Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are impaired not only in social competencies but also in sensory perception, particularly olfaction. The olfactory ability of individuals with ASD has been examined in several psychophysical studies, but the results have been highly variable, which might be primarily due to methodological difficulties in the control of odor stimuli (e.g., the problem of lingering scents). In addition, the neural correlates of olfactory specificities in individuals with ASD remain largely unknown. To date, only one study has investigated this issue using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The present study utilized a sophisticated method−a pulse ejection system−to present well-controlled odor stimuli to participants with ASD using an ASD-friendly application. With this advantageous system, we examined their odor detection, identification, and evaluation abilities and measured their brain activity evoked by odors using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). As the odor detection threshold (DT) of participants with ASD was highly variable, these participants were divided into two groups according to their DT: an ASD-Low DT group and an ASD-High DT group. Behavioral results showed that the ASD-High DT group had a significantly higher DT than the typically developing (control) group and the ASD-Low DT group, indicating their insensitivity to the tested odors. In addition, while there was no significant difference in the odor identification ability between groups, there was some discrepancy between the groups’ evaluations of odor pleasantness. The brain data identified, for the first time, that neural activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was significantly weaker in the ASD-High DT group than in the control group. Moreover, the strength of activity in the right DLPFC was negatively correlated with the DT. These findings suggest that participants with ASD have impairments in the higher-order function of olfactory processing, such as olfactory working memory and/or attention.
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