Global and Regional Structural Differences and Prediction of Autistic Traits during Adolescence
Autistic traits are commonly viewed as dimensional in nature, and as continuously distributed in the general population. In this respect, the identification of predictive values of markers such as subtle autism-related alterations in brain morphology for parameter values of autistic traits could increase our understanding of this dimensional occasion. However, currently, very little is known about how these traits correspond to alterations in brain morphology in typically developing individuals, particularly during a time period where changes due to brain development processes do not provide a bias. Therefore, in the present study, we analyzed brain volume, cortical thickness (CT) and surface area (SA) in a cohort of 14-15-year-old adolescents (N = 285, female: N = 162) and tested their predictive value for autistic traits, assessed with the social responsiveness scale (SRS) two years later at the age of 16-17 years, using a regression-based approach. We found that autistic traits were significantly predicted by volumetric changes in the amygdala (r = 0.181), cerebellum (r = 0.128) and hippocampus (r = -0.181, r = -0.203), both in boys and girls. Moreover, the CT of the superior frontal region was negatively correlated (r = -0.144) with SRS scores. Furthermore, we observed a significant association between the SRS total score and smaller left putamen volume, specifically in boys (r = -0.217), but not in girls. Our findings suggest that neural correlates of autistic traits also seem to lie on a continuum in the general population, are determined by limbic-striatal neuroanatomical brain areas, and are partly dependent on sex. As we imaged adolescents from a large population-based cohort within a small age range, these data may help to increase the understanding of autistic-like occasions in otherwise typically developing individuals.