Objective: Infantile autism is a neurobehavioral disorder that is widely believed to have etiologically distinct subtypes, including subtypes with a genetic basis, but no neuroanatomic evidence firmly supports this belief. To date, only one type of cerebellar abnormality has been identified in patients with autism: hypoplasia of the vermis and hemispheres. By using a large sample of autistic patients and healthy volunteers along with precise MR imaging and quantitative procedures, we sought to replicate previous reports of cerebellar vermian hypoplasia in autism and to identify additional subtypes of cerebellar abnormality.
Materials and methods: Using MR technology, we imaged and measured posterior and anterior vermian regions in 50 autistic patients (2-40 years old) and 53 healthy control subjects (3-37 years old). The autistic patients had social, language, cognitive, behavioral, and medical history characteristics that were typical of the general autistic population. By using precise procedures for positioning and aligning MR slices, we obtained comparable MR images within and across subject groups.
Results: Statistical analyses showed two subgroups of autistic patients, one (86% of the patients) with findings consistent with vermian hypoplasia and another (12% of the patients) with evidence of vermian hyperplasia. The hypoplasia subgroup included 43 patients whose mean midsagittal area for vermian lobules VI and VII was 237 +/- 38 mm2, and the hyperplasia subgroup included six patients whose mean area was 377 +/- 12 mm2. Thus, the area of lobules VI and VII in the hypoplasia subgroup was 16% smaller than the mean area in the control subjects (282 +/- 42 mm2) (p < .0001), whereas that in the hyperplasia subgroup was 34% larger (p < .0001). Analyses showed that these two subtypes of vermian abnormalities were present across all ages of autistic patients studied.
Conclusion: Two different subtypes of autistic patients can be identified on the basis of the presence of vermian hypoplasia or hyperplasia as seen on MR images. Possible origins for vermian hypoplasia include environmental trauma and genetic factors.