New Study States Autism is Unrelated to Brain Anatomy

According to a recent study, individuals with autism have the same brain anatomy as typically developed individuals. Israeli scientists have conducted the world’s largest and broadest brain-imaging study to date, shutting down previous claims that differences in brain anatomy could be partially to blame in the development of the disorder.

The study was led by Dr. Ilan Dinstein of the departments of Psychology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Dr. Dinstein states that based on their findings, anatomical measures of the brain alone are highly unlikely to identify any signs of autism. For many years, doctors have expected to find reasons for autism development by examining the brain’s structure, and some have even stated that they did find differences in brain anatomy that could lead to the disorder. However, Dr. Dinstein states that these studies are typically flawed, as each study examines a small sample of only 20 or 30 individuals.

Dr. Dinstein was focused on utilizing a much larger sample of individuals. His team used a worldwide collection of MRI scans of over 1,000 individuals (half with autism and half controls), ranging in age from 6 to 35 years old. This database, the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange, provided an excellent opportunity to conduct a large-scale comparison of anatomical MRI scans among both autistic individuals and their age-matched controls. His team studied several areas of the brain, looking at the volume, as well as examining the heterogeneity within each group.

The researchers looked at the differences in 180 specific brain regions, assessing the surface area and thickness. According to Dr. Dinstein’s findings, there is no statistically significant difference in brain volume between the control group and the autism group.

There are several reasons why Dr. Dinstein is dismissing previous studies, for one, the sample size of most studies is typically far too small to establish any real evidence. Secondly, he states many researchers are pressured to publish positive results. Lastly, and most importantly, researchers do not factor in the fact that there are vast anatomical differences between the brains of neurotypical individuals. Within one group, there can be large differences in brain size, however, there have not been any significant differences established between the control group and the group with autism.

Moving forward, Dr. Dinstein clarifies that it may be possible to find a specific kind of autism associated with a specific brain structure anomaly. He states, “Expecting to find a single answer for the entire [autistic population] is naïve. We need to move on to thinking about how to split up this very heterogeneous group of disorders into more meaningful biologically-relevant subgroups.”

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