Investigating the predictive value of whole-brain structural MR scans in autism: a pattern classification approach

Neuroimage. 2010 Jan 1;49(1):44-56. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.08.024. Epub 2009 Aug 14.


Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is accompanied by subtle and spatially distributed differences in brain anatomy that are difficult to detect using conventional mass-univariate methods (e.g., VBM). These require correction for multiple comparisons and hence need relatively large samples to attain sufficient statistical power. Reports of neuroanatomical differences from relatively small studies are thus highly variable. Also, VBM does not provide predictive value, limiting its diagnostic value. Here, we examined neuroanatomical networks implicated in ASD using a whole-brain classification approach employing a support vector machine (SVM) and investigated the predictive value of structural MRI scans in adults with ASD. Subsequently, results were compared between SVM and VBM. We included 44 male adults; 22 diagnosed with ASD using "gold-standard" research interviews and 22 healthy matched controls. SVM identified spatially distributed networks discriminating between ASD and controls. These included the limbic, frontal-striatal, fronto-temporal, fronto-parietal and cerebellar systems. SVM applied to gray matter scans correctly classified ASD individuals at a specificity of 86.0% and a sensitivity of 88.0%. Cases (68.0%) were correctly classified using white matter anatomy. The distance from the separating hyperplane (i.e., the test margin) was significantly related to current symptom severity. In contrast, VBM revealed few significant between-group differences at conventional levels of statistical stringency. We therefore suggest that SVM can detect subtle and spatially distributed differences in brain networks between adults with ASD and controls. Also, these differences provide significant predictive power for group membership, which is related to symptom severity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pattern Recognition, Automated
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Young Adult