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Background and objective: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous disorder. Research has explored potential ASD subgroups with preliminary evidence supporting the existence of behaviorally and genetically distinct subgroups; however, research has yet to leverage machine learning to identify phenotypes on a scale large enough to robustly examine treatment response across such subgroups. The purpose of the present study was to apply Gaussian Mixture Models and Hierarchical Clustering to identify behavioral phenotypes of ASD and examine treatment response across the learned phenotypes.

Materials and methods: The present study included a sample of children with ASD (N = 2400), the largest of its kind to date. Unsupervised machine learning was applied to model ASD subgroups as well as their taxonomic relationships. Retrospective treatment data were available for a portion of the sample (n =1034). Treatment response was examined within each subgroup via regression.

Results: The application of a Gaussian Mixture Model revealed 16 subgroups. Further examination of the subgroups through Hierarchical Agglomerative Clustering suggested 2 overlying behavioral phenotypes with unique deficit profiles each composed of subgroups that differed in severity of those deficits. Furthermore, differentiated response to treatment was found across subtypes, with a substantially higher amount of variance accounted for due to the homogenization effect of the clustering.

Discussion: The high amount of variance explained by the regression models indicates that clustering provides a basis for homogenization, and thus an opportunity to tailor treatment based on cluster memberships. These findings have significant implications on prognosis and targeted treatment of ASD, and pave the way for personalized intervention based on unsupervised machine learning.


This article was originally published in International Journal of Medical Informatics, volume 129, in 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2019.05.006


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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