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Original Article
May 2, 2011

Early Brain Overgrowth in Autism Associated With an Increase in Cortical Surface Area Before Age 2 Years

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Psychiatry (Drs Hazlett and Styner and Mr Vachet), The Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (Drs Hazlett and Piven, Mr Chappell, and Ms Smith), Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (Dr Poe), and Department of Computer Science (Dr Styner), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, University of Utah, Salt Lake City (Dr Gerig).

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(5):467-476. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.39
Abstract

Context  Brain enlargement has been observed in 2-year-old children with autism, but the underlying mechanisms are unknown.

Objective  To investigate early growth trajectories in brain volume and cortical thickness.

Design  Longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study.

Setting  Academic medical centers.

Participants  Fifty-nine children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 38 control children.

Intervention  Children were examined at approximately 2 years of age. Magnetic resonance imaging was repeated approximately 24 months later (when aged 4-5 years; 38 children with ASD; 21 controls).

Main Outcome Measures  Cerebral gray and white matter volumes and cortical thickness.

Results  We observed generalized cerebral cortical enlargement in individuals with ASD at both 2 and 4 to 5 years of age. Rate of cerebral cortical growth across multiple brain regions and tissue compartments in children with ASD was parallel to that seen in the controls, indicating that there was no increase in rate of cerebral cortical growth during this interval. No cerebellar differences were observed in children with ASD. After controlling for total brain volume, a disproportionate enlargement in temporal lobe white matter was observed in the ASD group. We found no significant differences in cortical thickness but observed an increase in an estimate of surface area in the ASD group compared with controls for all cortical regions measured (temporal, frontal, and parieto-occipital lobes).

Conclusions  Our longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study found generalized cerebral cortical enlargement in children with ASD, with a disproportionate enlargement in temporal lobe white matter. There was no significant difference from controls in the rate of brain growth for this age interval, indicating that brain enlargement in ASD results from an increased rate of brain growth before age 2 years. The presence of increased cortical volume, but not cortical thickness, suggests that early brain enlargement may be associated with increased cortical surface area. Cortical surface area overgrowth in ASD may underlie brain enlargement and implicates a distinct set of pathogenic mechanisms.

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