Context Neuroimaging studies of brain anatomy in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have mostly been based on measures of cortical volume (CV). However, CV is a product of 2 distinct parameters, cortical thickness (CT) and surface area (SA), that in turn have distinct genetic and developmental origins.
Objective To investigate regional differences in CV, SA, and CT as well as their relationship in a large and well-characterized sample of men with ASD and matched controls.
Design Multicenter case-control design using quantitative magnetic resonance imaging.
Setting Medical Research Council UK Autism Imaging Multicentre Study.
Participants A total of 168 men, 84 diagnosed as having ASD and 84 controls who did not differ significantly in mean (SD) age (26  years vs 28  years, respectively) or full-scale IQ (110  vs 114 , respectively).
Main Outcome Measures Between-group differences in CV, SA, and CT investigated using a spatially unbiased vertex-based approach; the degree of spatial overlap between the differences in CT and SA; and their relative contribution to differences in regional CV.
Results Individuals with ASD differed from controls in all 3 parameters. These mainly consisted of significantly increased CT within frontal lobe regions and reduced SA in the orbitofrontal cortex and posterior cingulum. These differences in CT and SA were paralleled by commensurate differences in CV. The spatially distributed patterns for CT and SA were largely nonoverlapping and shared only about 3% of all significantly different locations on the cerebral surface.
Conclusions Individuals with ASD have significant differences in CV, but these may be underpinned by (separable) variations in its 2 components, CT and SA. This is of importance because both measures result from distinct developmental pathways that are likely modulated by different neurobiological mechanisms. This finding may provide novel targets for future studies into the etiology of the condition and a new way to fractionate the disorder.