Increased rate of amygdala growth in children aged 2 to 4 years with autism spectrum disorders: a longitudinal study

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Jan;69(1):53-61. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.145.


Context: Precocious amygdala enlargement is commonly observed in young children with autism. However, the age at which abnormal amygdala enlargement begins and the relative growth trajectories of the amygdala and total brain remain unclear.

Objective: To determine whether the rate of amygdala growth is abnormal and disproportionate to total brain growth in very young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Design: Longitudinal structural magnetic resonance imaging study.

Setting: Neuroimaging and diagnostic assessments were performed at an academic medical center. Participants were recruited from the community.

Participants: Baseline scans were acquired in 132 boys (85 with ASD and 47 control subjects with typical development [TD]; mean age, 37 months). Longitudinal magnetic resonance images were acquired in 70 participants (45 with ASD and 25 TD controls) 1 year later.

Main outcome measure: Amygdala volumes and total cerebral volumes (TCVs) were evaluated at both time points, and 1-year growth rates were calculated.

Results: The amygdala was larger in children with ASD at both time points, but the magnitude of enlargement was greater at time 2. The TCV was also enlarged in the children with ASD by the same magnitude at both time points. When we controlled for TCV, amygdala enlargement remained significant at both time points. The rate of amygdala growth during this 1-year interval was faster in children with ASD than in TD controls. The rate of TCV growth did not differ between groups. Post hoc exploratory analyses revealed 3 patterns of amygdala and TCV growth rates in the ASD group.

Conclusions: Disproportionate amygdala enlargement is present by 37 months of age in ASD. The amygdala continues to grow at an increased rate, but substantial heterogeneity exists in amygdala and TCV growth patterns. Future studies aimed at clinical characterization of different growth patterns could have implications for choice and outcomes of treatment and behavioral therapy.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / growth & development*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / diagnosis
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / pathology*
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / physiopathology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Interview, Psychological
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Time Factors