Brain surface anatomy in adults with autism: the relationship between surface area, cortical thickness, and autistic symptoms

Christine Ecker*, Cedric Ginestet, Yue Feng, Patrick Johnston, Michael V Lombardo, Meng-Chuan Lai, John Suckling, Lena Palaniyappan, Eileen Daly, Clodagh Murphy, Steven Williams, Edward T Bullmore, Simon Baron-Cohen, Michael Brammer, Declan G M Murphy, MRC AIMS consortium

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Citations (Scopus)


Context: Neuroimaging studies of brain anatomy in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have mostly been based on measures of cortical volume (CV). However, CV is a product of 2 distinct parameters, cortical thickness (CT) and surface area (SA), that in turn have distinct genetic and developmental origins.

Objective: To investigate regional differences in CV, SA, and CT as well as their relationship in a large and well-characterized sample of men with ASD and matched controls.

Design: Multicenter case-control design using quantitative magnetic resonance imaging.

Setting: Medical Research Council UK Autism Imaging Multicentre Study.

Participants: A total of 168 men, 84 diagnosed as having ASD and 84 controls who did not differ significantly in mean (SD) age (26 [7] years vs 28 [6] years, respectively) or full-scale IQ (110 [14] vs 114 [12], respectively).

Main Outcome Measures: Between-group differences in CV, SA, and CT investigated using a spatially unbiased vertex-based approach; the degree of spatial overlap between the differences in CT and SA; and their relative contribution to differences in regional CV.

Results: Individuals with ASD differed from controls in all 3 parameters. These mainly consisted of significantly increased CT within frontal lobe regions and reduced SA in the orbitofrontal cortex and posterior cingulum. These differences in CT and SA were paralleled by commensurate differences in CV. The spatially distributed patterns for CT and SA were largely nonoverlapping and shared only about 3% of all significantly different locations on the cerebral surface.

Conclusions: Individuals with ASD have significant differences in CV, but these may be underpinned by (separable) variations in its 2 components, CT and SA. This is of importance because both measures result from distinct developmental pathways that are likely modulated by different neurobiological mechanisms. This finding may provide novel targets for future studies into the etiology of the condition and a new way to fractionate the disorder.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-70
Number of pages12
JournalJAMA Psychiatry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013


  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex
  • Young Adult
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Autistic Disorder
  • Humans
  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Adolescent
  • Male
  • Surface Properties


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