Human subcortical brain asymmetries in 15,847 people worldwide reveal effects of age and sex

Brain Imaging Behav. 2017 Oct;11(5):1497-1514. doi: 10.1007/s11682-016-9629-z.


The two hemispheres of the human brain differ functionally and structurally. Despite over a century of research, the extent to which brain asymmetry is influenced by sex, handedness, age, and genetic factors is still controversial. Here we present the largest ever analysis of subcortical brain asymmetries, in a harmonized multi-site study using meta-analysis methods. Volumetric asymmetry of seven subcortical structures was assessed in 15,847 MRI scans from 52 datasets worldwide. There were sex differences in the asymmetry of the globus pallidus and putamen. Heritability estimates, derived from 1170 subjects belonging to 71 extended pedigrees, revealed that additive genetic factors influenced the asymmetry of these two structures and that of the hippocampus and thalamus. Handedness had no detectable effect on subcortical asymmetries, even in this unprecedented sample size, but the asymmetry of the putamen varied with age. Genetic drivers of asymmetry in the hippocampus, thalamus and basal ganglia may affect variability in human cognition, including susceptibility to psychiatric disorders.

Keywords: Age; Enigma; Handedness; Heritability; Meta-analysis; Sex; Subcortical brain asymmetry.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / genetics
  • Aging / pathology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Middle Aged
  • Organ Size
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Young Adult