Differences in brain networks and underlying white matter abnormalities have been suggested to underlie symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, robustly characterizing microstructural white matter differences has been challenging. In the present study, we applied an analytic technique that calculates structural metrics specific to differently-oriented fiber bundles within a voxel, termed "fixels". Fixel-based analyses were used to compare diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging data from 25 individuals with ASD (mean age = 16.8 years) and 27 typically developing age-matched controls (mean age = 16.9 years). Group comparisons of fiber density (FD) and bundle morphology were run on a fixel-wise, tract-wise, and global white matter (GWM) basis. We found that individuals with ASD had reduced FD, suggestive of decreased axonal count, in several major white matter tracts, including the corpus callosum (CC), bilateral inferior frontal-occipital fasciculus, right arcuate fasciculus, and right uncinate fasciculus, as well as a GWM reduction. Secondary analyses assessed associations with social impairment in participants with ASD, and showed that lower FD in the splenium of the CC was associated with greater social impairment. Our findings suggest that reduced FD could be the primary microstructural white matter abnormality in ASD.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; fiber density; fixel-based analysis; social impairment; white matter.
© The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press.