This study investigated the relationship between white matter microstructure and the development of morphosyntax in a spoken narrative in typically developing children (TD) and in children with high functioning autism (HFA). Autism is characterized by language and communication impairments, yet the relationship between morphosyntactic development in spontaneous discourse contexts and neural development is not well understood in either this population or typical development. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) was used to assess multiple parameters of diffusivity as indicators of white matter tract integrity in language-related tracts in children between 6 and 13 years of age. Children were asked to spontaneously tell a story about at time when someone made them sad, mad, or angry. The story was evaluated for morphological accuracy and syntactic complexity. Analysis of the relationship between white matter microstructure and language performance in TD children showed that diffusivity correlated with morphosyntax production in the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF), a fiber tract traditionally associated with language. At the anatomical level, the HFA group showed abnormal diffusivity in the right inferior longitudinal fasciculus (ILF) relative to the TD group. Within the HFA group, children with greater white matter integrity in the right ILF displayed greater morphological accuracy during their spoken narrative. Overall, the current study shows an association between white matter structure in a traditional language pathway and narrative performance in TD children. In the autism group, associations were only found in the ILF, suggesting that during real world language use, children with HFA rely less on typical pathways and more on alternative ventral pathways that possibly mediate visual elements of language.
Keywords: Complex syntax; Development; Diffusion tensor imaging; Fractional anisotropy; Morphology.
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