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Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Oct 15;74(8):563-75. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.03.022. Epub 2013 May 23.

Compared to what? Early brain overgrowth in autism and the perils of population norms.

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Child Psychiatry Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. Electronic address:



Early brain overgrowth (EBO) in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is among the best replicated biological associations in psychiatry. Most positive reports have compared head circumference (HC) in ASD (an excellent proxy for early brain size) with well-known reference norms. We sought to reappraise evidence for the EBO hypothesis given 1) the recent proliferation of longitudinal HC studies in ASD, and 2) emerging reports that several of the reference norms used to define EBO in ASD may be biased toward detecting HC overgrowth in contemporary samples of healthy children.


Systematic review of all published HC studies in children with ASD. Comparison of 330 longitudinally gathered HC measures between birth and 18 months from male children with autism (n = 35) and typically developing control subjects (n = 22).


In systematic review, comparisons with locally recruited control subjects were significantly less likely to identify EBO in ASD than norm-based studies (p < .001). Through systematic review and analysis of new data, we replicate seminal reports of EBO in ASD relative to classical HC norms but show that this overgrowth relative to norms is mimicked by patterns of HC growth age in a large contemporary community-based sample of US children (n ~ 75,000). Controlling for known HC norm biases leaves inconsistent support for a subtle, later emerging and subgroup specific pattern of EBO in clinically ascertained ASD versus community control subjects.


The best-replicated aspects of EBO reflect generalizable HC norm biases rather than disease-specific biomarkers. The potential HC norm biases we detail are not specific to ASD research but apply throughout clinical and academic medicine.


Autism; CDC; WHO; bias; head circumference; systematic review

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