White-matter relaxation time and myelin water fraction differences in young adults with autism.


BACKGROUND: Increasing evidence suggests that autism is associated with abnormal white-matter (WM) anatomy and impaired brain 'connectivity'. While myelin plays a critical role in synchronized brain communication, its aetiological role in autistic symptoms has only been indirectly addressed by WM volumetric, relaxometry and diffusion tensor imaging studies. A potentially more specific measure of myelin content, termed myelin water fraction (MWF), could provide improved sensitivity to myelin alteration in autism. METHOD: We performed a cross-sectional imaging study that compared 14 individuals with autism and 14 age- and IQ-matched controls. T 1 relaxation times (T 1), T 2 relaxation times (T 2) and MWF values were compared between autistic subjects, diagnosed using the Autism Diagnostic Interview - Revised (ADI-R), with current symptoms assessed using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and typical healthy controls. Correlations between T 1, T 2 and MWF values with clinical measures [ADI-R, ADOS, and the Autism Quotient (AQ)] were also assessed. RESULTS: Individuals with autism showed widespread WM T 1 and MWF differences compared to typical controls. Within autistic individuals, worse current social interaction skill as measured by the ADOS was related to reduced MWF although not T 1. No significant differences or correlations with symptoms were observed with respect to T 2. CONCLUSIONS: Autistic individuals have significantly lower global MWF and higher T 1, suggesting widespread alteration in tissue microstructure and biochemistry. Areas of difference, including thalamic projections, cerebellum and cingulum, have previously been implicated in the disorder; however, this is the first study to specifically indicate myelin alteration in these regions.