Effects of age on brain volume and head circumference in autism.
OBJECTIVE: To determine whether brain volume, as assessed on MRI scans, differs between individuals with autism and control subjects, and whether such differences are affected by age. BACKGROUND: Previous studies have found increased brain weight, head circumference, and MRI brain volume in children with autism. However, studies of brain size in adults with autism have yielded conflicting results. The authors hypothesize that enlargement of the brain may be a feature of brain development during early childhood in autism that normalizes with maturational processes. METHODS: The authors measured total brain volumes from 1.5-mm coronal MRI scans in 67 non-mentally retarded children and adults with autism and 83 healthy community volunteers, ranging in age from 8 to 46 years. Head circumference was also measured. Groups did not differ on age, sex, verbal IQ, or socioeconomic status. RESULTS: Brain volumes were significantly larger for children with autism 12 years old and younger compared with normally developing children, when controlling for height. Brain volumes for individuals older than age 12 did not differ between the autism and control groups. Head circumference was increased in both younger and older groups of subjects with autism, suggesting that those subjects older than age 12 had increased brain volumes as children. CONCLUSIONS: Brain development in autism follows an abnormal pattern, with accelerated growth in early life that results in brain enlargement in childhood. Brain volume in adolescents and adults with autism is, however, normal, and appears to be due to a slight decrease in brain volume for these individuals at the same time that normal children are experiencing a slight increase.