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Intelligence and brain size in 100 postmortem brains: sex, lateralization and age factors

S. F. Witelson, H. Beresh, D. L. Kigar
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awh696 386-398 First published online: 9 December 2005


The neural basis of variation in human intelligence is not well delineated. Numerous studies relating measures of brain size such as brain weight, head circumference, CT or MRI brain volume to different intelligence test measures, with variously defined samples of subjects have yielded inconsistent findings with correlations from ∼0 to 0.6, with most correlations ∼0.3 or 0.4. The study of intelligence in relation to postmortem cerebral volume is not available to date. We report the results of such a study on 100 cases (58 women and 42 men) having prospectively obtained Full Scale Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale scores. Ability correlated with cerebral volume, but the relationship depended on the realm of intelligence studied, as well as the sex and hemispheric functional lateralization of the subject. General verbal ability was positively correlated with cerebral volume and each hemisphere's volume in women and in right-handed men accounting for 36% of the variation in verbal intelligence. There was no evidence of such a relationship in non-right-handed men, indicating that at least for verbal intelligence, functional asymmetry may be a relevant factor in structure–function relationships in men, but not in women. In women, general visuospatial ability was also positively correlated with cerebral volume, but less strongly, accounting for ∼10% of the variance. In men, there was a non-significant trend of a negative correlation between visuospatial ability and cerebral volume, suggesting that the neural substrate of visuospatial ability may differ between the sexes. Analyses of additional research subjects used as test cases provided support for our regression models. In men, visuospatial ability and cerebral volume were strongly linked via the factor of chronological age, suggesting that the well-documented decline in visuospatial intelligence with age is related, at least in right-handed men, to the decrease in cerebral volume with age. We found that cerebral volume decreased only minimally with age in women. This leaves unknown the neural substrate underlying the visuospatial decline with age in women. Body height was found to account for 1–4% of the variation in cerebral volume within each sex, leaving the basis of the well-documented sex difference in cerebral volume unaccounted for. With finer testing instruments of specific cognitive abilities and measures of their associated brain regions, it is likely that stronger structure–function relationships will be observed. Our results point to the need for responsibility in the consideration of the possible use of brain images as intelligence tests.

  • verbal
  • visuospatial
  • sex difference
  • functional asymmetry
  • ageing
  • CLH = consistent-left-handed
  • CRH = consistent-right-handed
  • DTI = diffusion tensor imaging
  • FSIQ = Full Scale Intelligence Quotient
  • Non-CRH = non-consistent-right-handed
  • PMI = time interval between death and brain removal at postmortem
  • PSS = Performance Scaled Score
  • VSS = Verbal Scaled Score
  • WAIS = Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale
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