Cortical development during childhood and adolescence has been characterised in recent years using metrics derived from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Changes in cortical thickness are greatest in the first two decades of life and recapitulate the genetic organisation of the cortex, highlighting the potential early impact of gene expression on differences in cortical architecture over the lifespan. It is important to further our understanding of the possible neurobiological mechanisms that underlie these changes as cortical thickness may be altered in several common neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. In this study, we combine MRI acquired from a large typically-developing childhood population (n = 768) with comprehensive human gene expression databases to test the hypothesis that disrupted mechanisms common to neurodevelopmental disorders are encoded by genes expressed early in development and nested within those associated with typical cortical remodelling in childhood. We find that differential rates of thinning across the developing cortex are associated with spatially-varying gradients of gene expression. Genes that are expressed highly in regions of accelerated thinning are expressed predominantly in cortical neurons, involved in synaptic remodelling, and associated with common cognitive and neurodevelopmental disorders. Further, we identify subsets of genes that are highly expressed in the prenatal period and jointly associated with both developmental cortical morphology and neurodevelopmental disorders.
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