Association of White Matter Structure With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

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Clinical overlap between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is increasingly appreciated, but the underlying brain mechanisms remain unknown to date.


To examine associations between white matter organization and 2 commonly co-occurring neurodevelopmental conditions, ASD and ADHD, through both categorical and dimensional approaches.

Design, Setting, and Participants

This investigation was a cross-sectional diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) study at an outpatient academic clinical and research center, the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center. Participants were children with ASD, children with ADHD, or typically developing children. Data collection was ongoing from December 2008 to October 2015.

Main Outcomes and Measures

The primary measure was voxelwise fractional anisotropy (FA) analyzed via tract-based spatial statistics. Additional voxelwise DTI metrics included radial diffusivity (RD), mean diffusivity (MD), axial diffusivity (AD), and mode of anisotropy (MA).


This cross-sectional DTI study analyzed data from 174 children (age range, 6.0-12.9 years), selected from a larger sample after quality assurance to be group matched on age and sex. After quality control, the study analyzed data from 69 children with ASD (mean [SD] age, 8.9 [1.7] years; 62 male), 55 children with ADHD (mean [SD] age, 9.5 [1.5] years; 41 male), and 50 typically developing children (mean [SD] age, 9.4 [1.5] years; 38 male). Categorical analyses revealed a significant influence of ASD diagnosis on several DTI metrics (FA, MD, RD, and AD), primarily in the corpus callosum. For example, FA analyses identified a cluster of 4179 voxels (TFCE FEW corrected P < .05) in posterior portions of the corpus callosum. Dimensional analyses revealed associations between ASD severity and FA, RD, and MD in more extended portions of the corpus callosum and beyond (eg, corona radiata and inferior longitudinal fasciculus) across all individuals, regardless of diagnosis. For example, FA analyses revealed clusters overall encompassing 12121 voxels (TFCE FWE corrected P < .05) with a significant association with parent ratings in the social responsiveness scale. Similar results were evident using an independent measure of ASD traits (ie, children communication checklist, second edition). Total severity of ADHD-traits was not significantly related to DTI metrics but inattention scores were related to AD in corpus callosum in a cluster sized 716 voxels. All these findings were robust to algorithmic correction of motion artifacts with the DTIPrep software.

Conclusions and Relevance

Dimensional analyses provided a more complete picture of associations between ASD traits and inattention and indexes of white matter organization, particularly in the corpus callosum. This transdiagnostic approach can reveal dimensional relationships linking white matter structure to neurodevelopmental symptoms.

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