Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that is characterized by an altered brain connectivity organization. Autistic traits below the clinical threshold (i.e., the broad autism phenotype; BAP) are frequent among first-degree relatives of subjects with ASD; however, little is known regarding whether subthreshold behavioral manifestations of ASD mirror also at the neuroanatomical level in parents of ASD probands. To this aim, we applied advanced diffusion network analysis to MRI of 16 dyads consisting of a child with ASD and his father in order to investigate: (i) the correlation between structural network organization and autistic features in preschoolers with ASD (all males; age range 1.5-5.2 years); (ii) the correlation between structural network organization and BAP features in the fathers of individuals with ASD (fath-ASD). Local network measures significantly correlated with autism severity in ASD children and with BAP traits in fath-ASD, while no significant association emerged when considering the global measures of brain connectivity. Notably, an overlap of some brain regions that are crucial for social functioning (cingulum, superior temporal gyrus, inferior temporal gyrus, middle frontal gyrus, frontal pole, and amygdala) in patients with ASD and fath-ASD was detected, suggesting an intergenerational transmission of these neural substrates. Overall, the results of this study may help in elucidating the neurostructural endophenotype of ASD, paving the way for bridging connections between underlying genetic and ASD symptomatology.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; brain connectivity; broader autism phenotype; connectome; diffusion tensor imaging; fathers; preschoolers.