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Behav Brain Res. 2013 Aug 15;251:163-7. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2013.04.021. Epub 2013 Apr 22.

A two-year longitudinal pilot MRI study of the brainstem in autism.

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Child Neuroscience Laboratory, Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, 230 South Frontage Road, New Haven, CT 06519, USA.


Research has demonstrated the potential role of the brainstem in the pathobiology of autism. Previous studies have suggested reductions in brainstem volume and a relationship between this structure and sensory abnormalities. However, little is known regarding the developmental aspects of the brainstem across childhood and adolescence. The goal of this pilot study was to examine brainstem development via MRI volumetry using a longitudinal research design. Participants included 23 boys with autism and 23 matched controls (age range=8-17 years), all without intellectual disability. Participants underwent structural MRI scans once at baseline and again at two-year follow-up. Brainstem volumetric measurements were performed using the BRAINS2 software package. There were no significant group differences in age, gender, handedness, and total brain volume; however, full-scale IQ was higher in controls. Autism and control groups showed different patterns of growth in brainstem volume. While whole brainstem volume remained stable in controls over the two-year period, the autism group showed increases with age reaching volumes comparable to controls by age 15 years. This increase of whole brainstem volume was primarily driven by bilateral increases in gray matter volume. Findings from this preliminary study are suggestive of developmental brainstem abnormalities in autism primarily involving gray matter structures. These findings are consistent with autism being conceptualized as a neurodevelopmental disorder with alterations in brain-growth trajectories. More longitudinal MRI studies are needed integrating longitudinal cognitive/behavioral data to confirm and elucidate the clinical significance of these atypical growth patterns.


Autism; Brainstem; Development; Gray matter; Longitudinal and MRI

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