Gray matter covariations in autism: out-of-sample replication using the ENIGMA autism cohort

Mol Autism. 2024 Jan 17;15(1):3. doi: 10.1186/s13229-024-00583-8.


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (henceforth autism) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition associated with differences in gray matter (GM) volume covariations, as reported in our previous study of the Longitudinal European Autism Project (LEAP) data. To make progress on the identification of potential neural markers and to validate the robustness of our previous findings, we aimed to replicate our results using data from the Enhancing Neuroimaging Genetics Through Meta-Analysis (ENIGMA) autism working group.

Methods: We studied 781 autistic and 927 non-autistic individuals (6-30 years, IQ ≥ 50), across 37 sites. Voxel-based morphometry was used to quantify GM volume as before. Subsequently, we used spatial maps of the two autism-related independent components (ICs) previously identified in the LEAP sample as templates for regression analyses to separately estimate the ENIGMA-participant loadings to each of these two ICs. Between-group differences in participants' loadings on each component were examined, and we additionally investigated the relation between participant loadings and autistic behaviors within the autism group.

Results: The two components of interest, previously identified in the LEAP dataset, showed significant between-group differences upon regressions into the ENIGMA cohort. The associated brain patterns were consistent with those found in the initial identification study. The first IC was primarily associated with increased volumes of bilateral insula, inferior frontal gyrus, orbitofrontal cortex, and caudate in the autism group relative to the control group (β = 0.129, p = 0.013). The second IC was related to increased volumes of the bilateral amygdala, hippocampus, and parahippocampal gyrus in the autism group relative to non-autistic individuals (β = 0.116, p = 0.024). However, when accounting for the site-by-group interaction effect, no significant main effect of the group can be identified (p > 0.590). We did not find significant univariate association between the brain measures and behavior in autism (p > 0.085).

Limitations: The distributions of age, IQ, and sex between LEAP and ENIGMA are statistically different from each other. Owing to limited access to the behavioral data of the autism group, we were unable to further our understanding of the neural basis of behavioral dimensions of the sample.

Conclusions: The current study is unable to fully replicate the autism-related brain patterns from LEAP in the ENIGMA cohort. The diverse group effects across ENIGMA sites demonstrate the challenges of generalizing the average findings of the GM covariation patterns to a large-scale cohort integrated retrospectively from multiple studies. Further analyses need to be conducted to gain additional insights into the generalizability of these two GM covariation patterns.

Keywords: Autism; Gray matter volume covariation; Replication.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / diagnostic imaging
  • Autistic Disorder* / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Retrospective Studies