Autism is a heterogeneous neurodevelopmental condition accompanied by differences in brain connectivity. Structural connectivity in autism has mainly been investigated within the white matter. However, many genetic variants associated with autism highlight genes related to synaptogenesis and axonal guidance, thus also implicating differences in intrinsic (i.e., gray matter) connections in autism. Intrinsic connections may be assessed in vivo via so-called intrinsic global and local wiring costs.
Here, we examined intrinsic global and local wiring costs in the brain of 359 individuals with autism and 279 healthy control participants ages 6 to 30 years from the EU-AIMS LEAP (Longitudinal European Autism Project). FreeSurfer was used to derive surface mesh representations to compute the estimated length of connections required to wire the brain within the gray matter. Vertexwise between-group differences were assessed using a general linear model. A gene expression decoding analysis based on the Allen Human Brain Atlas was performed to link neuroanatomical differences to putative underpinnings.
Group differences in global and local wiring costs were predominantly observed in medial and lateral prefrontal brain regions, in inferior temporal regions, and at the left temporoparietal junction. The resulting neuroanatomical patterns were enriched for genes that had been previously implicated in the etiology of autism at genetic and transcriptomic levels.
Based on intrinsic gray matter connectivity, the current study investigated the complex neuroanatomy of autism and linked between-group differences to putative genomic and/or molecular mechanisms to parse the heterogeneity of autism and provide targets for future subgrouping approaches.
Keywords: ASD, Imaging genetics, Intrinsic wiring costs, Neuroimaging, MRI