Williams syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with significant non-social fears. Consistent with this elevated non-social fear, individuals with Williams syndrome have an abnormally elevated amygdala response when viewing threatening non-social stimuli. In typically-developing individuals, amygdala activity is inhibited through dense, reciprocal white matter connections with the prefrontal cortex. Neuroimaging studies suggest a functional uncoupling of normal prefrontal-amygdala inhibition in individuals with Williams syndrome, which might underlie both the extreme amygdala activity and non-social fears. This functional uncoupling might be caused by structural deficits in underlying white matter pathways; however, prefrontal-amygdala white matter deficits have yet to be explored in Williams syndrome. We used diffusion tensor imaging to investigate prefrontal-amygdala white matter integrity differences in individuals with Williams syndrome and typically-developing controls with high levels of non-social fear. White matter pathways between the amygdala and several prefrontal regions were isolated using probabilistic tractography. Within each pathway, we tested for between-group differences in three measures of white matter integrity: fractional anisotropy (FA), radial diffusivity (RD), and parallel diffusivity (λ(1)). Individuals with Williams syndrome had lower FA, compared to controls, in several of the prefrontal-amygdala pathways investigated, indicating a reduction in white matter integrity. Lower FA in Williams syndrome was explained by significantly higher RD, with no differences in λ(1), suggestive of lower fiber density or axon myelination in prefrontal-amygdala pathways. These results suggest that deficits in the structural integrity of prefrontal-amygdala white matter pathways might underlie the increased amygdala activity and extreme non-social fears observed in Williams syndrome.
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