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Res Autism Spectr Disord. 2017 Feb;34:44-51. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2016.12.001. Epub 2016 Dec 9.

Relationship between brain stem volume and aggression in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

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Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, USA.
University of Utah, 201 Presidents Circle, SLC, UT 84112, USA.
University of Wisconsin-Madison, 500 Lincoln Drive, Madison, WI 53706, USA.



Aggressive behaviors are common in individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and may be phenotypic indicators of different subtypes within ASD. In current research literature for non-ASD samples, aggression has been linked to several brain structures associated with emotion and behavioral control. However, few if any studies exist investigating brain volume differences in individuals with ASD who have comorbid aggression as indicated by standardized diagnostic and behavioral measures.


We examined neuroimaging data from individuals rigorously diagnosed with ASD versus typically developing (TD) controls. We began with data from brain volume regions of interest (ROI) taken from previous literature on aggression including the brainstem, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. We defined aggression status using the Irritability subscale of the Aberrant Behavior Checklist and used lasso logistic regression to select among these predictor variables. Brainstem volume was the only variable shown to be a predictor of aggression status.


We found that smaller brainstem volumes are associated with higher odds of being in the high aggression group.


Understanding brain differences in individuals with ASD who engage in aggressive behavior from those with ASD who do not can inform treatment approaches. Future research should investigate brainstem structure and function in ASD to identify possible mechanisms related to arousal and aggression.


Autism; aggression; brainstem; imaging; structural MRI

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