Although differences in brain anatomy in autism have been difficult to replicate using manual tracing methods, automated whole brain analyses have begun to find consistent differences in regions of the brain associated with the social cognitive processes that are often impaired in autism. We attempted to replicate these whole brain studies and to correlate regional volume changes with several autism symptom measures.
We performed MRI scans on 24 individuals diagnosed with DSM-IV autistic disorder and compared those to scans from 23 healthy comparison subjects matched on age. All participants were male. Whole brain, voxel-wise analyses of regional gray matter volume were conducted using voxel-based morphometry (VBM).
Controlling for age and total gray matter volume, the volumes of the medial frontal gyri, left pre-central gyrus, right post-central gyrus, right fusiform gyrus, caudate nuclei and the left hippocampus were larger in the autism group relative to controls. Regions exhibiting smaller volumes in the autism group were observed exclusively in the cerebellum. Significant partial correlations were found between the volumes of the caudate nuclei, multiple frontal and temporal regions, the cerebellum and a measure of repetitive behaviors, controlling for total gray matter volume. Social and communication deficits in autism were also associated with caudate, cerebellar, and precuneus volumes, as well as with frontal and temporal lobe regional volumes.
Gray matter enlargement was observed in areas that have been functionally identified as important in social-cognitive processes, such as the medial frontal gyri, sensorimotor cortex and middle temporal gyrus. Additionally, we have shown that VBM is sensitive to associations between social and repetitive behaviors and regional brain volumes in autism.