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Altered lateralization of dorsal language tracts in 6‐week‐old infants at risk for autism


Altered structural connectivity has been identified as a possible biomarker of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) risk in the developing brain. Core features of ASD include impaired social communication and early language delay. Thus, examining white matter tracts associated with language may lend further insight into early signs of ASD risk and the mechanisms that underlie language impairments associated with the disorder. Evidence of altered structural connectivity has previously been detected in 6-month-old infants at high familial risk for developing ASD. However, as language processing begins in utero, differences in structural connectivity between language regions may be present in the early infant brain shortly after birth. Here we investigated key white matter pathways of the dorsal language network in 6-week-old infants at high (HR) and low (LR) risk for ASD to identify atypicalities in structural connectivity that may predict altered developmental trajectories prior to overt language delays and the onset of ASD symptomatology. Compared to HR infants, LR infants showed higher fractional anisotropy (FA) in the left superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF); in contrast, in the right SLF, HR infants showed higher FA than LR infants. Additionally, HR infants showed more rightward lateralization of the SLF. Across both groups, measures of FA and lateralization of these pathways at 6 weeks of age were related to later language development at 18 months of age as well as ASD symptomatology at 36 months of age. These findings indicate that early differences in the structure of language pathways may provide an early predictor of future language development and ASD risk.

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