A Longitudinal Study of White Matter Development in Relation to Changes in Autism Severity Across Early Childhood

Derek Sayre Andrews, Joshua K. Lee, Danielle Jenine Harvey, Einat Waizbard-Bartov, Marjorie Solomon, Sally J. Rogers, Christine Wu Nordahl, David G. Amaral

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Background: Cross-sectional diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging studies suggest that young autistic children have alterations in white matter structure that differ from older autistic individuals. However, it is unclear whether these differences result from atypical neurodevelopment or sampling differences between young and older cohorts. Furthermore, the relationship between altered white matter development and longitudinal changes in autism symptoms is unknown. Methods: Using longitudinal diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging acquired over 2 to 3 time points between the ages of approximately 2.5 to 7.0 years in 125 autistic children and 69 typically developing control participants, we directly tested the hypothesis that autistic individuals have atypical white matter development across childhood. Additionally, we sought to determine whether changes in white matter diffusion parameters were associated with longitudinal changes in autism severity. Results: Autistic children were found to have slower development of fractional anisotropy in the cingulum bundle, superior longitudinal fasciculus, internal capsule, and splenium of the corpus callosum. Furthermore, in the sagittal stratum, autistic individuals who increased in autism severity over time had a slower developmental trajectory of fractional anisotropy compared with individuals whose autism decreased in severity. In the uncinate fasciculus, autistic individuals who decreased in autism symptom severity also had greater increases in fractional anisotropy with age. Conclusions: These longitudinal findings indicate that previously reported differences in diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging measures between younger and older autism cohorts are attributable to an atypical developmental trajectory of white matter. Differences in white matter development between individuals whose autism severity increased, remained stable, or decreased suggest that these functional differences are associated with fiber development in the autistic brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBiological Psychiatry
StateAccepted/In press - 2020


  • Autism
  • Development
  • Diffusion
  • Imaging
  • Longitudinal
  • White Matter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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