Background: Gait disturbance, clumsiness, and other mild movement problems are often observed in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Maurer and Damasio 1982). As the brain ages, these symptoms may persist or worsen in late adulthood in those diagnosed with ASD. This study focused on older adults with ASD to study motor behavior and underlying brain integrity. Using a finger tapping task, motor performance was measured in a cross-sectional study comparing older adults with ASD and age-matched typically developing (TD) controls. We hypothesized that older adults with ASD would show poorer motor performance (slower finger tapping speed). We also hypothesized that underlying brain differences, measured using MRI, in regions associated with motor function including the primary motor cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, as well as the white matter connecting tracts would exist between groups and be associated with the proposed disparity in motor performance.
Method: A finger oscillation (Finger Tapping) test was administered to both ASD (n=21) and TD (n=20) participants aged 40-70 year old participants as a test of fine motor speed. Magnetic resonance (MR) images were collected using a Philips 3 Tesla scanner. 3D T1-weighted and diffusion tensor images (DTI) were obtained to measure gray and white matter volume and white matter integrity, respectively. FreeSurfer, an automated volumetric measurement software, was used to determine group volumetric differences. Mean, radial, and axial diffusivity, fractional anisotropy, and local diffusion homogeneity were measured from DTI images using PANDA software in order to evaluate white matter integrity.
Results: All participants were right-handed and there were no significant differences in demographic variables (ASD/TD, means) including age (51.9/49.1 years), IQ (107/112) and years education (15/16). Total brain volume was not significantly different between groups. No statistically significant group differences were observed in finger tapping speed. ASD participants compared to TDs showed a trend of slower finger tapping (taps/10 seconds) speed on the dominant hand (47.00 (±11.2) vs. (50.5 (±6.6)) and nondominant hand (44.6 (±7.6) vs. (47.2 (±6.6)). However, a large degree of variability was observed in the ASD group, and the Levene’s test for homogeneity of variance approached significance (p=0.053) on the dominant, but not the nondominant, hand. No significant group differences in gray matter regional volume were found for brain regions associated with performing motor tasks. In contrast, group differences were found on several measures of white matter including the corticospinal tract, anterior internal capsule and middle cerebellar peduncle. Brain-behavior correlations showed that dominant finger tapping speed correlated with left hemisphere white matter integrity of the corticospinal tract and right hemisphere cerebellar white matter in the ASD group.
Conclusions: No significant differences were observed between groups in finger tapping speed but the high degree of variability seen in the ASD group. Differences in motor performance appear to be associated with observed brain differences, particularly in the integrity of white matter tracts contributing to motor functioning.