Teens and young adults with autism show marked differences in their brains’ white matter compared to those without the disorder, a new study finds.
“If you think of gray matter as the computer, white matter is like the cables,” said study co-author Clara Weber, a postgraduate research fellow at Yale University School of Medicine.
The changes are most apparent in the region involved in communication between the brain’s two hemispheres, according to the findings slated to be presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
The Yale University team analyzed the results of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) brain scans of 264 people with autism, ranging in age from 6 months to 50 years, and a control group of 319 age-matched people without autism.
DTI is an MRI technique that measures connectivity in the brain by detecting how water moves along its white matter tracts. Water molecules diffuse differently through different types of brain tissue.
In teens and young adults, the researchers found significant differences within the anterior/middle tracts of the corpus callosum between those with autism and those in the control group. The corpus callosum is a thick bundle of nerve fibers that connects and allows the two sides of the brain to communicate.
“In adolescents, we saw a significant influence of autism,” Weber said in a meeting news release. “In adults, the effect was even more pronounced. Our results support the idea of impaired brain connectivity in autism, especially in tracts that connect both hemispheres.”
The researchers hope the findings can help improve early diagnosis of autism and provide potential biomarkers to monitor treatment response.
“One in 68 children in the U.S. is affected by [autism], but high variety in symptom manifestation and severity make it hard to recognize the condition early and monitor treatment response,” Weber said. “We aim to find neuro-imaging biomarkers that can potentially facilitate diagnosis and therapy planning.”
Research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Autism Society has more on autism.
SOURCE: Radiological Society of North America, news release, Nov. 23, 2021