Boys with serious conduct and substance problems (“Antisocial Substance Dependence” (ASD)) repeatedly make impulsive and risky decisions in spite of possible negative consequences. Because prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in planning behavior in accord with prior rewards and punishments, structural abnormalities in PFC could contribute to a person's propensity to make risky decisions.
We acquired high-resolution structural images of 25 male ASD patients (ages 14–18 years) and 19 controls of similar ages using a 3T MR system. We conducted whole-brain voxel-based morphometric analysis (p<0.05, corrected for multiple comparisons at whole-brain cluster-level) using Statistical Parametric Mapping version-5 and tested group differences in regional gray matter (GM) volume with analyses of covariance, adjusting for total GM volume, age, and IQ; we further adjusted between-group analyses for ADHD and depression. As secondary analyses, we tested for negative associations between GM volume and impulsivity within groups and separately, GM volume and symptom severity within patients using whole-brain regression analyses.
ASD boys had significantly lower GM volume than controls in left dorsolateral PFC (DLPFC), right lingual gyrus and bilateral cerebellum, and significantly higher GM volume in right precuneus. Left DLPFC GM volume showed negative association with impulsivity within controls and negative association with substance dependence severity within patients.
ASD boys show reduced GM volumes in several regions including DLPFC, a region highly relevant to impulsivity, disinhibition, and decision-making, and cerebellum, a region important for behavioral regulation, while they showed increased GM in precuneus, a region associated with self-referential and self-centered thinking.