Introduction: A total of 38 brain cytoarchitectonic subdivisions, representing subcortical and cortical structures, cerebellum, and brainstem, were examined in 4- to 60-year-old subjects diagnosed with autism and control subjects (a) to detect a global pattern of developmental abnormalities and (b) to establish whether the function of developmentally modified structures matches the behavioral alterations that are diagnostic for autism. The volume of cytoarchitectonic subdivisions, neuronal numerical density, and total number of neurons per region of interest were determined in 14 subjects with autism and 14 age-matched controls by using unbiased stereological methods.
Results: The study revealed that significant differences between the group of subjects with autism and control groups are limited to a few brain regions, including the cerebellum and some striatum and amygdala subdivisions. In the group of individuals with autism, the total number and numerical density of Purkinje cells in the cerebellum were reduced by 25% and 24%, respectively. In the amygdala, significant reduction of neuronal density was limited to the lateral nucleus (by 12%). Another sign of the topographic selectivity of developmental alterations in the brain of individuals with autism was an increase in the volumes of the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens by 22% and 34%, respectively, and the reduced numerical density of neurons in the nucleus accumbens and putamen by 15% and 13%, respectively.
Conclusions: The observed pattern of developmental alterations in the cerebellum, amygdala and striatum is consistent with the results of magnetic resonance imaging studies and their clinical correlations, and of some morphometric studies that indicate that detected abnormalities may contribute to the social and communication deficits, and repetitive and stereotypical behaviors observed in individuals with autism.