Involvement of the habenula in the pathophysiology of autism spectrum disorder

Sci Rep. 2021 Oct 27;11(1):21168. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-00603-0.


The habenula is a small epithalamic structure with widespread connections to multiple cortical, subcortical and brainstem regions. It has been identified as the central structure modulating the reward value of social interactions, behavioral adaptation, sensory integration and circadian rhythm. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by social communication deficits, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, and is frequently associated with altered sensory perception and mood and sleep disorders. The habenula is implicated in all these behaviors and results of preclinical studies suggest a possible involvement of the habenula in the pathophysiology of this disorder. Using anatomical magnetic resonance imaging and automated segmentation we show that the habenula is significantly enlarged in ASD subjects compared to controls across the entire age range studied (6-30 years). No differences were observed between sexes. Furthermore, support-vector machine modeling classified ASD with 85% accuracy (model using habenula volume, age and sex) and 64% accuracy in cross validation. The Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) significantly differed between groups, however, it was not related to individual habenula volume. The present study is the first to provide evidence in human subjects of an involvement of the habenula in the pathophysiology of ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnostic imaging*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / pathology
  • Child
  • Female
  • Habenula / diagnostic imaging*
  • Habenula / pathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Social Behavior
  • Support Vector Machine