Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 30566633
Link to DOI – 10.1093/cercor/bhy303
Cereb Cortex 2019 03; 29(3): 1342-1350
Females might possess protective mechanisms regarding autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and require a higher detrimental load, including structural brain alterations, before developing clinically relevant levels of autistic traits. This study examines sex differences in structural brain morphology in autism and autistic traits using a within-twin pair approach. Twin design inherently controls for shared confounders and enables the study of gene-independent neuroanatomical variation. N = 148 twins (62 females) from 49 monozygotic and 25 dizygotic same-sex pairs were included. Participants were distributed along the whole continuum of autism including twin pairs discordant and concordant for clinical ASD. Regional brain volume, surface area, and cortical thickness were computed. Within-twin pair increases in autistic traits were related to decreases in cortical volume and surface area of temporal and frontal regions specifically in female twin pairs, in particular regions involved in social communication, while only two regions were associated with autistic traits in males. The same pattern was detected in the monozygotic twin pairs only. Thus, non-shared environmental factors seem to impact female more than male cerebral architecture associated with autistic traits. Our results are in line with the hypothesis of a female protective effect in autism and highlights the need to study ASD in females separately from males.