Common cerebral white matter abnormalities found in children with autistic traits

September 6, 2017, NYU Langone Health

Structural abnormalities in the brain's white matter match up consistently with the severity of autistic symptoms not only in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but also, to some degree, in those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who also have autistic traits.

This is the finding of a new study, published September 6 in JAMA Psychiatry, which highlights evidence supporting the theory that common, underlying mechanisms may be responsible for seen in both diagnoses.

Led by researchers in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, the new study focused on white matter—nerve bundles that transmit information between brain regions. Researchers say the link between symptom severity and white matter structural patterns was most evident in the region of the brain called the , which connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and enables communication between them.

The fact that correlations could be found between ASD traits and white matter structure across diagnoses suggests shared disease mechanisms—and the existence of biomarkers that could be used potentially to guide the design of more specific, future diagnostic tests and treatments.

"It's important for both clinicians and parents to know of the possibility of co-occurring symptoms in a child with a primary diagnosis of autism or ADHD," says Adriana Di Martino, MD, senior author and associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. "This work could help guide clinicians in their treatment decisions and lead to a more comprehensive, personalized intervention."

ASD and ADHD are two of the most commonly occurring pediatric neurodevelopmental disorders. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately one in 68 children suffers from some degree of ASD, while the American Psychiatric Association approximates that about five percent of US children have ADHD. Although clinical overlap between ASD and ADHD is increasingly acknowledged, the exact underlying brain mechanisms of such overlap remain unknown.

Researchers in this latest study did not find a significant correlation between ADHD and white matter structure. However, when they did isolate the results based on the severity of a child's inattention—an ADHD trait —they found inattention was significantly associated with structural changes in the corpus callosum. The authors hypothesize that abnormalities in different aspects of white matter structure might correspond to distinct patient profiles.

How the Study Was Conducted

Researchers analyzed digital images of the brains of 174 children: 69 with a diagnosis of ASD; 55 with diagnosed with ADHD; and 50 typically developing children. All received care as outpatients at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone. Most participants were male, reflecting their higher prevalence of ASD and ADHD.

In addition to traditional categorical analyses—examining and comparing groups within their defined diagnosis—the team performed dimensional analyses, looking at data across the diagnostic groups. This provided a more complete picture of associations between brain disorder symptoms and white matter structure. Parent-completed forms assessing the child's behaviors and symptoms were used for the dimensional analysis.

Previous imaging studies have found abnormal white matter structure in children with ASD and ADHD when compared with typically developing brains. The current study is the first to simultaneously assess both ASD and ADHD in the same sample dimensionally.

Researchers used cross-sectional diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a type of MRI that tracks the diffusion of water molecules in the brain. This diffusion process is affected by fiber density, diameter, and myelination which reflect white integrity—essential for the fast and efficient communication of nerve pulses.

By comparing the individual's severity of ASD symptoms—regardless of diagnosis—to the brain images, the researchers were able to more clearly see the brain-behavior relationships. They concluded that the more severe the autistic traits of the individual, the lower the integrity in the affected areas of the brain.

"This cross-diagnosis approach is crucial to our future work in identifying biomarkers on the path toward precision medicine," says Dr. Di Martino.

The authors stress that although significant strides have been made through this analysis, more long-term studies are needed to confirm whether or not common developmental pathways between the two disorders actually exist.

Explore further: Common brain changes found in children with autism, ADHD and OCD

Related Stories

Common brain changes found in children with autism, ADHD and OCD

July 27, 2016
A team of Toronto scientists has found similarities in brain impairments in children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Novel dimensional approach uncovers biomarker for inattention

March 8, 2017
Despite diagnoses for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) occurring in a reported 11 percent of U.S. school-aged kids, clinicians still don't fully understand the underlying causes of this common condition. Now ...

Functional brain pathways disrupted in children with ADHD

November 28, 2011
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have identified abnormalities in the brains of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that may serve as a biomarker for the disorder, ...

ADHD a 'brain disorder', not just bad behaviour: study

February 16, 2017
People with ADHD have slightly smaller brains than those without the condition, according to a study released Thursday which insisted it is a physical disorder and not just bad behaviour.

ADHD may have different effects on brains of boys and girls

October 22, 2015
(HealthDay)—Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) manifests itself differently in the brains of girls than in the brains of boys, new research suggests.

More links seen between autism, ADHD

August 26, 2013
(HealthDay)—Kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are 20 times more likely to exhibit some traits of autism than children without ADHD, according to a new study.

Recommended for you

Global study finds youngest in class more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD

October 15, 2018
A new global study involving the University of Adelaide has found that children who are the youngest in their classroom are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than their older ...

Much still unclear about relationship between screen media use and ADHD in children

October 5, 2018
There is a statistically small relationship between children's screen media use and ADHD-related behaviours. This is the finding of an extensive literature review on this subject carried out by researchers from the UvA's ...

Brain scans reveal common patterns can predict variations in ADHD

September 24, 2018
Distinct brain patterns can help explain variations in the way children present with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), paving a course towards improved treatment and support for the common neurodevelopmental ...

ADHD may increase risk of Parkinson's disease and similar disorders

September 12, 2018
While about 11 percent of children (4-17 years old) nationwide have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the long-term health effects of having ADHD and of common ADHD medications remains understudied. ...

Over past 20 years, percentage of children with ADHD nearly doubles

September 3, 2018
The number of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has reached more than 10 percent, a significant increase during the past 20 years, according to a study released Friday.

ADHD rates rising sharply in US kids

August 31, 2018
(HealthDay)—The number of ADHD diagnoses among children has risen dramatically in the past two decades, going from 6 percent to 10 percent, a new report shows.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.