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

Janneke R. Zinkstok, E. Daly, C. Ecker, S. C R Williams, D. G M Murphy, A. J. Bailey, S. Baron-Cohen, P. F. Bolton, E. T. Bullmore, S. Carrington, B. Chakrabarti, E. M. Daly, Sean C. L. Deoni, C. Ecker, F. Happe, J. Henty, P Jezzard, Patrick Johnston, D. K. Jones, Michael V. LombardoA. Madden, D. Mullins, Clodagh Murphy, D. G. Murphy, G. Pasco, Susan A. Sadek, Debbie Spain, R. Steward, John Suckling, S Wheelwright, Steven Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)



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.


We performed a cross-sectional imaging study that compared 14 individuals with autism and 14 age- and IQ-matched controls. T1 relaxation times (T1), T2 relaxation times (T2) 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 T1T2 and MWF values with clinical measures [ADI-R, ADOS, and the Autism Quotient (AQ)] were also assessed.


Individuals with autism showed widespread WM T1 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 T1. No significant differences or correlations with symptoms were observed with respect to T2.


Autistic individuals have significantly lower global MWF and higher T1, 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)795-805
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number4
Early online date11 Aug 2014
Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2015


  • Autism
  • brain connectivity
  • brain development
  • human brain imaging
  • myelin
  • white matter


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