Evidence from prospective studies of high-risk infants suggests that early symptoms of autism usually emerge late in the first or early in the second year of life after a period of relatively typical development. The authors prospectively examined white matter fiber tract organization from 6 to 24 months in high-risk infants who developed autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) by 24 months.
The participants were 92 high-risk infant siblings from an ongoing imaging study of autism. All participants had diffusion tensor imaging at 6 months and behavioral assessments at 24 months; a majority contributed additional imaging data at 12 and/or 24 months. At 24 months, 28 infants met criteria for ASDs and 64 infants did not. Microstructural properties of white matter fiber tracts reported to be associated with ASDs or related behaviors were characterized by fractional anisotropy and radial and axial diffusivity.
The fractional anisotropy trajectories for 12 of 15 fiber tracts differed significantly between the infants who developed ASDs and those who did not. Development for most fiber tracts in the infants with ASDs was characterized by higher fractional anisotropy values at 6 months followed by slower change over time relative to infants without ASDs. Thus, by 24 months of age, those with ASDs had lower values.
These results suggest that aberrant development of white matter pathways may precede the manifestation of autistic symptoms in the first year of life. Longitudinal data are critical to characterizing the dynamic age-related brain and behavior changes underlying this neurodevelopmental disorder.