Cortical Volume and Thickness Correlate With Sensory Characteristics in Autism

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As the relationship between sensory characteristics and brain morphological changes in ASD aren’t clear, researchers studied the association between these 2 factors utilizing brain image analysis and a sensory profile test.

Sensory symptoms among adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may be triggered by brain morphological changes. These findings were published in Translational Psychiatry.

Adults with ASD (n=43) and typically developing controls (n=84) underwent brain magnetic resonance image (MRI) analysis at the University of Fukui Hospital in Japan and were assessed for sensory profiles using the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile (AASP) instrument.

The ASD and control cohorts were aged mean 27.7 (standard deviation [SD], 5.6) and 28.3 (SD, 8.0) years, the male:female ratio was 29:14 and 44:40, and full-scale intellectual quotient (IQ) was 109.4 (SD, 11.7) and 109.6 (SD, 11.7), respectively. The ASD cohort had significantly higher autism-spectrum quotient (P <.001) and social responsiveness scale (SRS; P <.001) scores.

The ASD cohort was found to have significantly higher low registration, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoidance during the AASP assessment. ASD was associated with avoiding sensations involving taste, smell, movement, vision, touch, and auditory stimulation. Women had higher scores in taste, movement, activity level, and low registration compared with men.

Among the ASD group, SRS correlated with activity level (r, 0.64; P <.001) and low registration (r, 0.610; P <.001). AASP visual sensory scores were correlated with right lingual cortical thickness (r, 0.500; P <.001) and right lateral orbitofrontal cortical thickness (r, -0.513; P <.001). AASP taste and smell sensation are correlated with brain volume of the right (r, -0.510; P <.001) and left (r, -0.540; P <.001) hippocampus.

Among controls, the volume of the right amygdala was correlated with movement sensation avoiding (r, 0.368; P <.001).

Between the ASD and controls, there were group differences of the correlations of visual sensory sensitivity scores and right lingual cortical thickness (z, 3.28; P =.001), movement sensation avoiding scores and right amygdala (z, 2.64; P =.001), and visual sensation avoiding scores and right lateral orbitofrontal cortical thickness (z, 2.57; P =.011).

This study may have been limited by including gender as a covariate. Additional study is needed to assess the magnitude of the gender effect in the context of brain morphological changes among patients with ASD.

This study identified a possible relationship between sensory characteristics and brain cortical thickness and volume, implying abnormal sensory processing in ASD.

“These findings have implications for the assessment of abnormal sensory processing in ASD,” the authors wrote.

“Significant correlations were found between the thickness of the lingual gyrus and orbitofrontal cortices and visual characteristics as well as between the hippocampal volume and smell/taste characteristics in ASD. These results provide valuable information on brain morphological changes as the neurological basis of sensory abnormalities in ASD.”


Habata K, Cheong Y, Kamiya T, et al. Relationship between sensory characteristics and cortical thickness/volume in autism spectrum disorders. Transl Psychiatry. 2021;11(1):616. doi:10.1038/s41398-021-01743-7