Self-injurious behaviours are associated with alterations in the somatosensory system in children with autism spectrum disorder.
Duerden EG., Card D., Roberts SW., Mak-Fan KM., Chakravarty MM., Lerch JP., Taylor MJ.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) frequently engage in self-injurious behaviours, often in the absence of reporting pain. Previous research suggests that altered pain sensitivity and repeated exposure to noxious stimuli are associated with morphological changes in somatosensory and limbic cortices. Further evidence from postmortem studies with self-injurious adults has indicated alterations in the structure and organization of the temporal lobes; however, the effect of self-injurious behaviour on cortical development in children with ASD has not yet been determined. Thirty children and adolescents (mean age = 10.6 ± 2.5 years; range 7-15 years; 29 males) with a clinical diagnosis of ASD and 30 typically developing children (N = 30, mean age = 10.7 ± 2.5 years; range 7-15 years, 26 males) underwent T1-weighted magnetic resonance and diffusion tensor imaging. No between-group differences were seen in cerebral volume, surface area or cortical thickness. Within the ASD group, self-injury scores negatively correlated with thickness in the right superior parietal lobule t = 6.3, p < 0.0001, bilateral primary somatosensory cortices (SI) (right: t = 4.4, p = 0.02; left: t = 4.48, p = 0.004) and the volume of the left ventroposterior (VP) nucleus of the thalamus (r = -0.52, p = 0.008). Based on these findings, we performed an atlas-based region-of-interest diffusion tensor imaging analysis between SI and the VP nucleus and found that children who engaged in self-injury had significantly lower fractional anisotropy (r = -0.4, p = 0.04) and higher mean diffusivity (r = 0.5, p = 0.03) values in the territory of the left posterior limb of the internal capsule. Additionally, greater incidence of self-injury was associated with increased radial diffusivity values in bilateral posterior limbs of the internal capsule (left: r = 0.5, p = 0.02; right: r = 0.5, p = 0.009) and corona radiata (left: r = 0.6, p = 0.005; right: r = 0.5, p = 0.009). Results indicate that self-injury is related to alterations in somatosensory cortical and subcortical regions and their supporting white-matter pathways. Findings could reflect use-dependent plasticity in the somatosensory system or disrupted brain development that could serve as a risk marker for self-injury.