The longitudinal bidirectional relationship between autistic traits and brain morphology from childhood to adolescence: a population-based cohort study

Melisa Durkut, Elisabet Blok, Anna Suleri, Tonya White*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
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Abstract

Objective: Autistic traits are associated with alterations in brain morphology. However, the anatomic location of these differences and their developmental trajectories are unclear. The primary objective of this longitudinal study was to explore the bidirectional relationship between autistic traits and brain morphology from childhood to adolescence. Method: Participants were drawn from a population-based cohort. Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses included 1950 (mean age 13.5) and 304 participants (mean ages 6.2 and 13.5), respectively. Autistic traits were measured with the Social Responsiveness Scale. Global brain measures and surface-based measures of gyrification, cortical thickness and surface area were obtained from T1-weighted MRI scans. Cross-sectional associations were assessed using linear regression analyses. Cross-lagged panel models were used to determine the longitudinal bidirectional relationship between autistic traits and brain morphology. Results: Cross-sectionally, higher levels of autistic traits in adolescents are associated with lower gyrification in the pars opercularis, insula and superior temporal cortex; smaller surface area in the middle temporal and postcentral cortex; larger cortical thickness in the superior frontal cortex; and smaller cerebellum cortex volume. Longitudinally, both autistic traits and brain measures were quite stable, with neither brain measures predicting changes in autistic traits, nor vice-versa. Limitations: Autistic traits were assessed at only two time points, and thus we could not distinguish within- versus between-person effects. Furthermore, two different MRI scanners were used between baseline and follow-up for imaging data acquisition. Conclusions: Our findings point to early changes in brain morphology in children with autistic symptoms that remain quite stable over time. The observed relationship did not change substantially after excluding children with high levels of autistic traits, bolstering the evidence for the extension of the neurobiology of autistic traits to the general population.

Original languageEnglish
Article number31
JournalMolecular Autism
Volume13
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The neuroimaging data collection and image processing were supported by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) TOP project number 9121102 to TW. Additional support came through the Simon’s Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) 307280 to TW. The work of EB was supported by the Sophia Children’s Hospital Research Foundation (SSWO) Project #S18-68, #S20-48. The general design of the Generation R Study is made possible by financial support from the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.

Publisher Copyright: © 2022, The Author(s).

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