Primary olfactory cortex in autism and epilepsy: increased glial cells in autism

Brain Pathol. 2017 Jul;27(4):437-448. doi: 10.1111/bpa.12415. Epub 2016 Aug 15.


Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by sensory anomalies including impaired olfactory identification. Between 5 and 46 percent of individuals with autism have a clinical diagnosis of epilepsy. Primary olfactory cortex (piriform cortex) is central to olfactory identification and is an epileptogenic structure. Cytoarchitectural changes in olfactory cortex may underlie olfactory differences seen in autism. Primary olfactory cortex was sampled from 17 post-mortem autism cases with and without epilepsy, 11 epilepsy cases without autism and 11 typically developed cases. Stereological and neuropathological methods were used to quantify glial, pyramidal and non-pyramidal cell densities in layers of the piriform as well as identify pathological differences in this area and its neighbouring region, the olfactory tubercle. We found increased layer II glial cell densities in autism with and without epilepsy, which were negatively correlated with age and positively correlated with levels of corpora amylacea in layer I. These changes were also associated with greater symptom severity and did not extend to the olfactory tubercle. Glial cell organization may follow an altered trajectory of development with age in autism. The findings are consistent with other studies implicating increased glial cells in the autism brain. Altered cytoarchitecture may contribute to sensory deficits observed in affected individuals. This study provides evidence that autism is linked to alterations in the cytoarchitectural structure that underlies primary sensory processes and is not restricted to heteromodal ("higher") cognitive centers.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; epilepsy; glia; olfaction; primary olfactory cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Antigens, CD / metabolism
  • Antigens, Differentiation, Myelomonocytic / metabolism
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology*
  • Epilepsy / pathology*
  • Female
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuroglia / metabolism
  • Neuroglia / pathology*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Olfactory Cortex / pathology*
  • Postmortem Changes
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Young Adult


  • Antigens, CD
  • Antigens, Differentiation, Myelomonocytic
  • CD68 antigen, human
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein