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A diffusion-weighted imaging tract-based spatial statistics study of autism spectrum disorder in preschool-aged children.



The core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are widely theorized to result from altered brain connectivity. Diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DWI) has been a versatile method for investigating underlying microstructural properties of white matter (WM) in ASD. Despite phenotypic and etiological heterogeneity, DWI studies in majority male samples of older children, adolescents, and adults with ASD have largely reported findings of decreased fractional anisotropy (FA) across several commissural, projection, and association fiber tracts. However, studies in preschool-aged children (i.e., < 30-40 months) suggest individuals with ASD have increased measures of WM FA earlier in development.


We analyzed 127 individuals with ASD (85♂, 42♀) and 54 typically developing (TD) controls (42♂, 26♀), aged 25.1-49.6 months. Voxel-wise effects of ASD diagnosis, sex, age, and their interaction on DWI measures of FA, mean diffusivity (MD), radial diffusivity (RD), and axial diffusivity (AD) were investigated using tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS) while controlling mean absolute and relative motion.


Compared to TD controls, males and females with ASD had significantly increased measures of FA in eight clusters (threshold-free cluster enhancement p < 0.05) that incorporated several WM tracts including regions of the genu, body, and splenium of the corpus callosum, inferior frontal-occipital fasciculi, inferior and superior longitudinal fasciculi, middle and superior cerebellar peduncles, and corticospinal tract. A diagnosis by sex interaction was observed in measures of AD across six significant clusters incorporating areas of the body, genu, and splenium of the corpus collosum. In these tracts, females with ASD showed increased AD compared to TD females, while males with ASD showed decreased AD compared to TD males.


The current findings support growing evidence that preschool-aged children with ASD have atypical measures of WM microstructure that appear to differ in directionality from alterations observed in older individuals with the condition. To our knowledge, this study represents the largest sample of preschool-aged females with ASD to be evaluated using DWI. Microstructural differences associated with ASD largely overlapped between sexes. However, differential relationships of AD measures indicate that sex likely modulates ASD neuroanatomical phenotypes. Further longitudinal study is needed to confirm and quantify the developmental relationship of WM structure in ASD.

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