Abnormal white matter development may disrupt integration within neural circuits, causing particular impairments in higher-order behaviours. In autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), white matter alterations may contribute to characteristic deficits in complex socio-emotional and communication domains. Here, we used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and tract based spatial statistics (TBSS) to evaluate white matter microstructure in ASD.
DTI scans were acquired for 19 children and adolescents with ASD (∼8–18 years; mean 12.4±3.1) and 16 age and IQ matched controls (∼8–18 years; mean 12.3±3.6) on a 3T MRI system. DTI values for fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, radial diffusivity and axial diffusivity, were measured. Age by group interactions for global and voxel-wise white matter indices were examined. Voxel-wise analyses comparing ASD with controls in: (i) the full cohort (ii), children only (≤12 yrs.), and (iii) adolescents only (>12 yrs.) were performed, followed by tract-specific comparisons. Significant age-by-group interactions on global DTI indices were found for all three diffusivity measures, but not for fractional anisotropy. Voxel-wise analyses revealed prominent diffusion measure differences in ASD children but not adolescents, when compared to healthy controls. Widespread increases in mean and radial diffusivity in ASD children were prominent in frontal white matter voxels. Follow-up tract-specific analyses highlighted disruption to pathways integrating frontal, temporal, and occipital structures involved in socio-emotional processing.
Our findings highlight disruption of neural circuitry in ASD, particularly in those white matter tracts that integrate the complex socio-emotional processing that is impaired in this disorder.