Altered Gray-White Matter Boundary Contrast in Toddlers at Risk for Autism Relates to Later Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Michel Godel, Derek S. Andrews, David G. Amaral, Sally Ozonoff, Gregory S. Young, Joshua K. Lee, Christine Wu Nordahl, Marie Schaer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Recent neuroimaging studies have highlighted differences in cerebral maturation in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in comparison to typical development. For instance, the contrast of the gray-white matter boundary is decreased in adults with ASD. To determine how gray-white matter boundary integrity relates to early ASD phenotypes, we used a regional structural MRI index of gray-white matter contrast (GWC) on a sample of toddlers with a hereditary high risk for ASD. Materials and Methods: We used a surface-based approach to compute vertex-wise GWC in a longitudinal cohort of toddlers at high-risk for ASD imaged twice between 12 and 24 months (n = 20). A full clinical assessment of ASD-related symptoms was performed in conjunction with imaging and again at 3 years of age for diagnostic outcome. Three outcome groups were defined (ASD, n = 9; typical development, n = 8; non-typical development, n = 3). Results: ASD diagnostic outcome at age 3 was associated with widespread increases in GWC between age 12 and 24 months. Many cortical regions were affected, including regions implicated in social processing and language acquisition. In parallel, we found that early onset of ASD symptoms (i.e., prior to 18-months) was specifically associated with slower GWC rates of change during the second year of life. These alterations were found in areas mainly belonging to the central executive network. Limitations: Our study is the first to measure maturational changes in GWC in toddlers who developed autism, but given the limited size of our sample results should be considered exploratory and warrant further replication in independent and larger samples. Conclusion: These preliminary results suggest that ASD is linked to early alterations of the gray-white matter boundary in widespread brain regions. Early onset of ASD diagnosis constitutes an independent clinical parameter associated with a specific corresponding neurobiological developmental trajectory. Altered neural migration and/or altered myelination processes potentially explain these findings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number669194
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
StatePublished - Jun 17 2021


  • autism spectrum disorder
  • FreeSurfer
  • neurodevelopment
  • neuroimaging
  • sibling risk
  • toddlers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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