Subcortical Brain Development in Autism and Fragile X Syndrome: Evidence for Dynamic, Age- and Disorder-Specific Trajectories in Infancy

Mark D. Shen, Meghan R. Swanson, Jason J. Wolff, Jed T. Elison, Jessica B. Girault, Sun Hyung Kim, Rachel G. Smith, Michael M. Graves, Leigh Anne H. Weisenfeld, Lisa Flake, Leigh MacIntyre, Julia L. Gross, Catherine A. Burrows, Vladimir S. Fonov, D. Louis Collins, Alan C. Evans, Guido Gerig, Robert C. McKinstry, Juhi Pandey, Tanya St JohnLonnie Zwaigenbaum, Annette M. Estes, Stephen R. Dager, Robert T. Schultz, Martin A. Styner, Kelly N. Botteron, Heather C. Hazlett, Joseph Piven

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Previous research has demonstrated that the amygdala is enlarged in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the precise onset of this enlargement during infancy, how it relates to later diagnostic behaviors, whether the timing of enlargement in infancy is specific tothe amygdala,andwhether it is specifictoASD(or present in other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as fragile X syndrome) are all unknown. Methods: Longitudinal MRIs were acquired at 6-24 months of age in 29 infants with fragile X syndrome, 58 infants at high likelihood for ASD who were later diagnosed with ASD, 212 high-likelihood infants not diagnosed with ASD, and 109 control infants (1,099 total scans). Results: Infants who developed ASD had typically sized amygdala volumes at 6 months, but exhibited significantly faster amygdala growth between 6 and 24 months, such that by 12 months theASDgroup had significantly larger amygdala volume (Cohen's d50.56) compared with all other groups. Amygdala growth rate between 6 and 12 months was significantly associated with greater social deficits at 24monthswhenthe infantswere diagnosed with ASD. Infants with fragile X syndrome had a persistent and significantly enlarged caudate volume at all ages between 6 and 24 months (d52.12), compared with all other groups, which was significantly associated with greater repetitive behaviors. Conclusions: This is the first MRI study comparing fragile X syndrome and ASD in infancy, demonstrating strikingly different patterns of brain and behavior development. Fragile X syndrome-related changes were present from 6 months of age, whereas ASD-related changes unfolded over the first 2 years of life, starting with no detectable group differences at 6 months. Increased amygdala growth rate between 6 and 12 months occurs prior to social deficits and well before diagnosis. This gradual onset of brain and behavior changes in ASD, but not fragile X syndrome, suggests an age- and disorder-specific pattern of cascading brain changes preceding autism diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)562-572
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


Dive into the research topics of 'Subcortical Brain Development in Autism and Fragile X Syndrome: Evidence for Dynamic, Age- and Disorder-Specific Trajectories in Infancy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this