Language Ability Predicts Cortical Structure and Covariance in Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Abstract

There is significant clinical heterogeneity in language and communication abilities of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). However, no consistent pathology regarding the relationship of these abilities to brain structure has emerged. Recent developments in anatomical correlation-based approaches to map structural covariance networks (SCNs), combined with detailed behavioral characterization, offer an alternative for studying these relationships. In this study, such an approach was used to study the integrity of SCNs of cortical thickness and surface area associated with language and communication, in 46 high-functioning, school-age children with ASD compared with 50 matched, typically developing controls (all males) with IQ > 75. Findings showed that there was alteration of cortical structure and disruption of fronto-temporal cortical covariance in ASD compared with controls. Furthermore, in an analysis of a subset of ASD participants, alterations in both cortical structure and covariance were modulated by structural language ability of the participants, but not communicative function. These findings indicate that structural language abilities are related to altered fronto-temporal cortical covariance in ASD, much more than symptom severity or cognitive ability. They also support the importance of better characterizing ASD samples while studying brain structure and for better understanding individual differences in language and communication abilities in ASD.

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