The Impaired Subcortical Pathway From Superior Colliculus to the Amygdala in Boys With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Front Integr Neurosci. 2022 Jun 17:16:666439. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2022.666439. eCollection 2022.


Objective: Increasing evidence suggests that a subcortical pathway from the superior colliculus (SC) through the pulvinar to the amygdala plays a crucial role in mediating non-conscious processing in response to emotional visual stimuli. Given the atypical eye gaze and response patterns to visual affective stimuli in autism, we examined the functional and white matter structural difference of the pathway in boys with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and typically developing (TD) boys.

Methods: A total of 38 boys with ASD and 38 TD boys were included. We reconstructed the SC-pulvinar-amygdala pathway in boys with ASD and TD using tractography and analyzed tract-specific measurements to compare the white matter difference between the two groups. A region of interest-based functional analysis was also applied among the key nodes of the pathway to explore the functional connectivity network.

Results: Diffusion tensor imaging analysis showed decreased fractional anisotropy (FA) in pathways for boys with ASD compared to TD. The FA change was significantly associated with the atypical communication pattern in boys with ASD. In addition, compared to TD, we found that the ASD group was associated with increased functional connectivity between the right pulvinar and the left SC.

Conclusion: Our results indicated that the functional and white matter microstructure of the subcortical route to the amygdala might be altered in individuals with autism. This atypical structural change of the SC-pulvinar-amygdala pathway may be related to the abnormal communication patterns in boys with ASD.

Keywords: DTI; SC; amygdala; autism spectrum disorder; fMRI; pulvinar.