The thalamus plays crucial roles in the development and mature functioning of numerous sensorimotor, cognitive and attentional circuits. Currently limited evidence suggests that autism spectrum disorder may be associated with thalamic abnormalities, potentially related to sociocommunicative and other impairments in this disorder. We used functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion tensor imaging probabilistic tractography to study the functional and anatomical integrity of thalamo-cortical connectivity in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and matched typically developing children. For connectivity with five cortical seeds (prefontal, parieto-occipital, motor, somatosensory and temporal), we found evidence of both anatomical and functional underconnectivity. The only exception was functional connectivity with the temporal lobe, which was increased in the autism spectrum disorders group, especially in the right hemisphere. However, this effect was robust only in partial correlation analyses (partialling out time series from other cortical seeds), whereas findings from total correlation analyses suggest that temporo-thalamic overconnectivity in the autism group was only relative to the underconnectivity found for other cortical seeds. We also found evidence of microstructural compromise within the thalamic motor parcel, associated with compromise in tracts between thalamus and motor cortex, suggesting that the thalamus may play a role in motor abnormalities reported in previous autism studies. More generally, a number of correlations of diffusion tensor imaging and functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging measures with diagnostic and neuropsychological scores indicate involvement of abnormal thalamocortical connectivity in sociocommunicative and cognitive impairments in autism spectrum disorder.
Keywords: autism; connectivity; diffusion tensor imaging; functional MRI; thalamus.