Autism in the Female Brain

Population studies of the prevalence of autism dictate that two- to- three times as many males as females have autism. However, autism is far from exclusively male, and researchers are now suggesting that looking more closely at the brain structure of females with autism may provide important clues as to why autism manifests differently in different individuals. Meng-Chuan Lai and Michael V. Lombardo at the University of Cambridge led a research team which included ICARE4Autism Advisory Committee Member Dr. Simon Baron Cohen. The team asked, among other important questions, is the neuroanatomy of autism different in males and females?

Their study took a population of 120 participants, 30 high-functioning females with autism, 30 high-functioning males with autism, as well as 30 neurotypical females and 30 neurotypical males of the same age as the participants with autism. Their analysis used a 2X2 factorial design, as they compared gender, male and female, along with diagnosis, having autism or not.

The researchers found that there are significant neuroanatomical differences not only in individuals with autism compared to those without, but between males and females with autism. Females with autism were found to have more structures similar in size to neurotypical males, than neurotypical females did. Researchers did not observe this in males with autism.

Researchers suggest further studies should be done with other populations with autism, such as children or individuals with lower IQs. Additionally, researchers caution that the differences in brain structure between males and females with autism might not necessarily contribute to the prevalence of autism in males and females, and may be related to other environmental factors, such as gender-specific life experiences.

For more information on the differences of autism in men and women, read here:  http://www.icare4autism.org/news/2013/08/according-to-icare4autisms-advisory-committee-member-dr-simon-baron-cohen-autism-affects-males-and-females-differently/

By Stephanie A. Millman

Work Cited: Lai, M. C., Lombardo, M. V., Suckling, J., Ruigrok, A. N., Chakrabarti, B., Ecker, C., … & Baron-Cohen, S. (2013). Biological sex affects the neurobiology of autism. Brain, 136(9), 2799-2815.

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