Significant heterogeneity across aetiologies, neurobiology and clinical phenotypes have been observed in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Neuroimaging-based neuroanatomical studies of ASD have often reported inconsistent findings which may, in part, be attributable to an insufficient understanding of the relationship between factors influencing clinical heterogeneity and their relationship to brain anatomy. To this end, we performed a large-scale examination of cortical morphometry in ASD, with a specific focus on the impact of three potential sources of heterogeneity: sex, age and full-scale intelligence (FIQ). To examine these potentially subtle relationships, we amassed a large multi-site dataset that was carefully quality controlled (yielding a final sample of 1327 from the initial dataset of 3145 magnetic resonance images; 491 individuals with ASD). Using a meta-analytic technique to account for inter-site differences, we identified greater cortical thickness in individuals with ASD relative to controls, in regions previously implicated in ASD, including the superior temporal gyrus and inferior frontal sulcus. Greater cortical thickness was observed in sex specific regions; further, cortical thickness differences were observed to be greater in younger individuals and in those with lower FIQ, and to be related to overall clinical severity. This work serves as an important step towards parsing factors that influence neuroanatomical heterogeneity in ASD and is a potential step towards establishing individual-specific biomarkers.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00001246.