Background. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with an estimated genetic origin of 90%. Previous studies have reported an increase in brain volume of approximately 5% in autistic subjects, especially in children. If this increase in brain volume is genetically determined, biological parents of autistic probands might be expected to show brain enlargement, or at least intracranial enlargement, as well. Identifying structural brain abnormalities under genetic control is of particular importance as these could represent endophenotypes of autism.
Method. Using quantitative anatomic brain magnetic resonance imaging, volumes of intracranial, total brain, frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobe, cerebral and cortical gray and white matter, cerebellum, lateral ventricle, and third ventricle were measured in biological, non-affected parents of autistic probands (19 couples) and in healthy, closely matched control subjects (20 couples).
Results. No significant differences were found between the parents of the autistic probands and healthy control couples in any of the brain volumes. Adding gender as a factor in a second analysis did not reveal a significant interaction effect of gender by group.
Conclusions. The present sample of biological, non-affected parents of autistic probands did not show brain enlargements. As the intracranium is not enlarged, it is unlikely that the brain volumes of the parents of autistic probands have originally been enlarged and have been normalized. Thus, increased brain volume in autism might be caused by the interaction of paternal and maternal genes, possibly with an additional effect of environmental factors, or increased brain volumes might reflect phenotypes of autism.