Deficits in mesolimbic reward pathway underlie social interaction impairments in children with autism
Lack of interest in social interaction is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder. Animal studies have implicated the mesolimbic reward pathway in driving and reinforcing social behaviour, but little is known about the integrity of this pathway and its behavioural consequences in children with autism spectrum disorder. Here we test the hypothesis that the structural and functional integrity of the mesolimbic reward pathway is aberrant in children with autism spectrum disorder, and these aberrancies contribute to the social interaction impairments. We examine structural and functional connectivity of the mesolimbic reward pathway in two independent cohorts totalling 82 children aged 7-13 years with autism spectrum disorder and age-, gender-, and intelligence quotient-matched typically developing children (primary cohort: children with autism spectrum disorder n = 24, typically developing children n = 24; replication cohort: children with autism spectrum disorder n = 17, typically developing children n = 17), using high angular resolution diffusion-weighted imaging and functional MRI data. We reliably identify white matter tracts linking-the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area-key subcortical nodes of the mesolimbic reward pathway, and provide reproducible evidence for structural aberrations in these tracts in children with autism spectrum disorder. Further, we show that structural aberrations are accompanied by aberrant functional interactions between nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area in response to social stimuli. Crucially, we demonstrate that both structural and functional circuit aberrations in the mesolimbic reward pathway are related to parent-report measures of social interaction impairments in affected children. Our findings, replicated across two independent cohorts, reveal that deficits in the mesolimbic reward pathway contribute to impaired social skills in childhood autism, and provide fundamental insights into neurobiological mechanisms underlying reduced social interest in humans.