Background: Individuals with autism have impairments in 3 domains: communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviours. Our previous work suggested early structural and connectivity abnormalities in prefrontal-striato-temporal-cerebellar networks but it is not clear how these are linked to diagnostic indices.
Method: Children with autism (IQ > 70) aged 6 to 14 years old and matched typically developing controls were studied using diffusion tensor imaging. Voxel-based methods were used to compare fractional anisotrophy (FA) measures in each group and to correlate FA measures in the autism group with the diagnostic phenotype described by the Autism Diagnostic Interview - Revised (ADI-R) algorithm for ICD-10.
Results: After controlling for the effects of age and white matter volume, we found that FA in the autism group was significantly lower than controls in bilateral prefrontal and temporal regions, especially in the right ventral temporal lobe adjacent to the fusiform gyrus. FA was greater in autism in the right inferior frontal gyrus and left occipital lobe. We observed a tight correlation between lower FA and higher ADI-R diagnostic algorithm scores across white matter tracts extending from these focal regions of group difference. Communication and social reciprocity impairments correlated with lower FA throughout fronto-striato-temporal pathways. Repetitive behaviours correlated with white matter indices in more posterior brain pathways, including splenium of the corpus callosum and cerebellum.
Conclusions: Our data support the position that diagnostic symptoms of autism are associated with a core disruption of white matter development.