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Sex differences in cortical volume and gyrification in autism.


Male predominance is a prominent feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), with a reported male to female ratio of 4:1. Because of the overwhelming focus on males, little is known about the neuroanatomical basis of sex differences in ASD. Investigations of sex differences with adequate sample sizes are critical for improving our understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying ASD in females.We leveraged the open-access autism brain imaging data exchange (ABIDE) dataset to obtain structural brain imaging data from 53 females with ASD, who were matched with equivalent samples of males with ASD, and their typically developing (TD) male and female peers. Brain images were processed with FreeSurfer to assess three key features of local cortical morphometry: volume, thickness, and gyrification. A whole-brain approach was used to identify significant effects of sex, diagnosis, and sex-by-diagnosis interaction, using a stringent threshold of p < 0.01 to control for false positives. Stability and power analyses were conducted to guide future research on sex differences in ASD.We detected a main effect of sex in the bilateral superior temporal cortex, driven by greater cortical volume in females compared to males in both the ASD and TD groups. Sex-by-diagnosis interaction was detected in the gyrification of the ventromedial/orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex (vmPFC/OFC). Post-hoc analyses revealed that sex-by-diagnosis interaction was driven by reduced vmPFC/OFC gyrification in males with ASD, compared to females with ASD as well as TD males and females. Finally, stability analyses demonstrated a dramatic drop in the likelihood of observing significant clusters as the sample size decreased, suggesting that previous studies have been largely underpowered. For instance, with a sample of 30 females with ASD (total n = 120), a significant sex-by-diagnosis interaction was only detected in 50 % of the simulated subsamples.Our results demonstrate that some features of typical sex differences are preserved in the brain of individuals with ASD, while others are not. Sex differences in ASD are associated with cortical regions involved in language and social function, two domains of deficits in the disorder. Stability analyses provide novel quantitative insights into why smaller samples may have previously failed to detect sex differences.