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Brain anatomy and sensorimotor gating in Asperger’s syndrome

Grainne M. McAlonan, Eileen Daly, Veena Kumari, Hugo D. Critchley, Therese van Amelsvoort, John Suckling, Andrew Simmons, Thordur Sigmundsson, Kathyrn Greenwood, Ailsa Russell, Nicole Schmitz, Francesca Happe, Patricia Howlin, Declan G. M. Murphy
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awf150 1594-1606 First published online: 1 July 2002


Asperger’s syndrome (an autistic disorder) is characterized by stereotyped and obsessional behaviours, and pervasive abnormalities in socio‐emotional and communicative behaviour. These symptoms lead to social exclusion and a significant healthcare burden; however, their neurobiological basis is poorly understood. There are few studies on brain anatomy of Asperger’s syndrome, and no focal anatomical abnormality has been reliably reported from brain imaging studies of autism, although there is increasing evidence for differences in limbic circuits. These brain regions are important in sensorimotor gating, and impaired ‘gating’ may partly explain the failure of people with autistic disorders to inhibit repetitive thoughts and actions. Thus, we compared brain anatomy and sensorimotor gating in healthy people with Asperger’s syndrome and controls. We included 21 adults with Asperger’s syndrome and 24 controls. All had normal IQ and were aged 18–49 years. We studied brain anatomy using quantitative MRI, and sensorimotor gating using prepulse inhibition of startle in a subset of 12 individuals with Asperger’s syndrome and 14 controls. We found significant age‐related differences in volume of cerebral hemispheres and caudate nuclei (controls, but not people with Asperger’s syndrome, had age‐related reductions in volume). Also, people with Asperger’s syndrome had significantly less grey matter in fronto‐striatal and cerebellar regions than controls, and widespread differences in white matter. Moreover, sensorimotor gating was significantly impaired in Asperger’s syndrome. People with Asperger’s syndrome most likely have generalized alterations in brain development, but this is associated with significant differences from controls in the anatomy and function of specific brain regions implicated in behaviours characterizing the disorder. We hypothesize that Asperger’s syndrome is associated with abnormalities in fronto‐striatal pathways resulting in defective sensorimotor gating, and consequently characteristic difficulties inhibiting repetitive thoughts, speech and actions.

  • Keywords: Asperger’s syndrome; autism; brain; MRI; prepulse inhibition
  • Abbreviations: ADI = autism diagnostic interview; FSE = fast spin echo; MANOVA = multivariate analysis of variance; PPI = prepulse inhibition of startle; SMaRT = structural magnetic and resonance toolkit; SPGR = spoiled grass; ToM = theory of mind

Received June 5, 2001. Revised November 19, 2001. Second revision February 2, 2002. Accepted February 4, 2002

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