Early brain overgrowth in autism associated with an increase in cortical surface area before age 2 years

Heather Cody Hazlett, Michele D. Poe, Guido Gerig, Martin Styner, Chad Chappell, Rachel Gimpel Smith, Clement Vachet, Joseph Piven

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context: Brain enlargement has been observed in 2-year-old children with autism, but the underlying mechanisms are unknown. Objective: To investigate early growth trajectories in brain volume and cortical thickness. Design: Longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study. Setting: Academic medical centers. Participants: Fifty-nine children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 38 control children. Intervention: Children were examined at approximately 2 years of age. Magnetic resonance imaging was repeated approximately 24 months later (when aged 4-5 years; 38 children with ASD; 21 controls). Main Outcome Measures: Cerebral gray and white matter volumes and cortical thickness. Results: We observed generalized cerebral cortical enlargement in individuals with ASD at both 2 and 4 to 5 years of age. Rate of cerebral cortical growth across multiple brain regions and tissue compartments in children with ASD was parallel to that seen in the controls, indicating that there was no increase in rate of cerebral cortical growth during this interval. No cerebellar differences were observed in children with ASD. After controlling for total brain volume, a disproportionate enlargement in temporal lobe white matter was observed in the ASD group. We found no significant differences in cortical thickness but observed an increase in an estimate of surface area in the ASD group compared with controls for all cortical regions measured (temporal, frontal, and parieto-occipital lobes). Conclusions: Our longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study found generalized cerebral cortical enlargement in children with ASD, with a disproportionate enlargement in temporal lobe white matter. There was no significant difference from controls in the rate of brain growth for this age interval, indicating that brain enlargement in ASD results from an increased rate of brain growth before age 2 years. The presence of increased cortical volume, but not cortical thickness, suggests that early brain enlargement may be associated with increased cortical surface area. Cortical surface area overgrowth in ASD may underlie brain enlargement and implicates a distinct set of pathogenic mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)467-476
Number of pages10
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


Dive into the research topics of 'Early brain overgrowth in autism associated with an increase in cortical surface area before age 2 years'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this