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Early-onset first-episode psychosis (FEP) and high functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are complex neuro–developmental disorders that share symptomatology but it is not clear if they also share neurobiological abnormalities (Chisholm et al., 2015). We examined thickness, surface area and volume in a direct comparison of children and adolescents with FEP (onset before 18 years), high-functioning ASD, and healthy subjects.
Magnetic resonance imaging scans of 85 participants (30 ASD, 29 FEP, 26 healthy controls, age range 10–18 years) were obtained from the same MR scanner using the same acquisition protocol. The FreeSurfer analysis suite was used to quantify vertex-wise estimates of the metrics thickness, surface area, and volume.
ASD and FEP had spatially overlapping insular deficits for each metric. The transdiagnostic overlap of deficits was greatest for volume (55% of all insular vertices) and smallest for thickness (18%). Insular thickness and surface area deficits did not overlap in ASD and overlapped only in 8% of all insular vertices in FEP.
Morphological insular deficits are common to FEP and high functioning ASD when compared to healthy participants. The pattern of deficits was similar in both disorders, i.e. a largely non-overlap of insular thickness and surface area. The non-overlap provides further evidence that these metrics represent two independent outcomes of corticogenesis, both of which are affected in FEP and ASD.
Disclosure of interest
The authors have not supplied their declaration of competing interest.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and psychosis share deficits in social cognition. The insular region has been associated with awareness of self and reality, which may be basic for proper social interactions.
Total and regional insular volume and thickness measurements were obtained from a sample of 30 children and adolescents with ASD, 29 with early onset first-episode psychosis (FEP), and 26 healthy controls (HC). Total, regional, and voxel-level volume and thickness measurements were compared between groups (with correction for multiple comparisons), and the relationship between these measurements and symptom severity was explored.
Compared with HC, a shared volume deficit was observed for the right (but not the left) anterior insula (ASD: p = 0.007, FEP: p = 0.032), and for the bilateral posterior insula: (left, ASD: p = 0.011, FEP: p = 0.033; right, ASD: p = 0.004, FEP: p = 0.028). A voxel-based morphometry (VBM) conjunction analysis showed that ASD and FEP patients shared a gray matter volume and thickness deficit in the left posterior insula. Within patients, right anterior (r = −0.28, p = 0.041) and left posterior (r = −0.29, p = 0.030) insular volumes negatively correlated with the severity of insight deficits, and left posterior insular volume negatively correlated with the severity of ‘autistic-like’ symptoms (r = −0.30, p = 0.028).
The shared reduced volume and thickness in the anterior and posterior regions of the insula in ASD and FEP provides the first tentative evidence that these conditions share structural pathology that may be linked to shared symptomatology.
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