Atypical Brain Asymmetry in Autism—A Candidate for Clinically Meaningful Stratification

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (“autism”) is a highly heterogeneous neurodevelopmental condition with few effective treatments for core and associated features. To make progress we need to both identify and validate neural markers that help to parse heterogeneity to tailor therapies to specific neurobiological profiles. Atypical hemispheric lateralization is a stable feature across studies in autism, but its potential as a neural stratification marker has not been widely examined.

Methods: In order to dissect heterogeneity in lateralization in autism, we used the large EU-AIMS (European Autism Interventions-A Multicentre Study for Developing New Medications) Longitudinal European Autism Project dataset comprising 352 individuals with autism and 233 neurotypical control subjects as well as a replication dataset from ABIDE (Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange) (513 individuals with autism, 691 neurotypical subjects) using a promising approach that moves beyond mean group comparisons. We derived gray matter voxelwise laterality values for each subject and modeled individual deviations from the normative pattern of brain laterality across age using normative modeling.

Results: Individuals with autism had highly individualized patterns of both extreme right- and leftward deviations, particularly in language, motor, and visuospatial regions, associated with symptom severity. Language delay explained most variance in extreme rightward patterns, whereas core autism symptom severity explained most variance in extreme leftward patterns. Follow-up analyses showed that a stepwise pattern emerged, with individuals with autism with language delay showing more pronounced rightward deviations than individuals with autism without language delay.

Conclusions: Our analyses corroborate the need for novel (dimensional) approaches to delineate the heterogeneous neuroanatomy in autism and indicate that atypical lateralization may constitute a neurophenotype for clinically meaningful stratification in autism.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Brain asymmetry; Hemispheric specialization; Heterogeneity; Language delay; Normative modeling.