Cortico-basal ganglia white matter microstructure is linked to restricted repetitive behavior in autism spectrum disorder

Mol Autism. 2024 Jan 23;15(1):6. doi: 10.1186/s13229-023-00581-2.


Background: Restricted repetitive behavior (RRB) is one of two behavioral domains required for the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Neuroimaging is widely used to study brain alterations associated with ASD and the domain of social and communication deficits, but there has been less work regarding brain alterations linked to RRB.

Methods: We utilized neuroimaging data from the National Institute of Mental Health Data Archive to assess basal ganglia and cerebellum structure in a cohort of children and adolescents with ASD compared to typically developing (TD) controls. We evaluated regional gray matter volumes from T1-weighted anatomical scans and assessed diffusion-weighted scans to quantify white matter microstructure with free-water imaging. We also investigated the interaction of biological sex and ASD diagnosis on these measures, and their correlation with clinical scales of RRB.

Results: Individuals with ASD had significantly lower free-water corrected fractional anisotropy (FAT) and higher free-water (FW) in cortico-basal ganglia white matter tracts. These microstructural differences did not interact with biological sex. Moreover, both FAT and FW in basal ganglia white matter tracts significantly correlated with measures of RRB. In contrast, we found no significant difference in basal ganglia or cerebellar gray matter volumes.

Limitations: The basal ganglia and cerebellar regions in this study were selected due to their hypothesized relevance to RRB. Differences between ASD and TD individuals that may occur outside the basal ganglia and cerebellum, and their potential relationship to RRB, were not evaluated.

Conclusions: These new findings demonstrate that cortico-basal ganglia white matter microstructure is altered in ASD and linked to RRB. FW in cortico-basal ganglia and intra-basal ganglia white matter was more sensitive to group differences in ASD, whereas cortico-basal ganglia FAT was more closely linked to RRB. In contrast, basal ganglia and cerebellar volumes did not differ in ASD. There was no interaction between ASD diagnosis and sex-related differences in brain structure. Future diffusion imaging investigations in ASD may benefit from free-water estimation and correction in order to better understand how white matter is affected in ASD, and how such measures are linked to RRB.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Basal ganglia; Cerebellum; Cortico-basal ganglia; Diffusion tensor imaging; Free-water; Gray matter; Restricted repetitive behavior; White matter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / diagnostic imaging
  • Basal Ganglia / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain
  • Child
  • Humans
  • United States
  • Water
  • White Matter* / diagnostic imaging


  • Water