Examining associations between amygdala volumes and anxiety symptoms in autism spectrum disorder

  • Heather A. Yarger
    Corresponding Author: Heather A. Yarger, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland College Park, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program, University of Maryland College Park, 3123A Biology-Psychology Building, College Park, MD 20742, USA, Phone: 301-458-0685
    Department of Psychology, University of Maryland College Park, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program, University of Maryland College Park, 3123A Biology-Psychology Building, College Park, MD 20742, USA
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  • Christine Wu Nordahl
    UC Davis Health, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, UC Davis MIND Institute
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  • Elizabeth Redcay
    Department of Psychology, University of Maryland College Park, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program, University of Maryland College Park
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Published:October 21, 2021DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2021.10.010



      Anxiety is one of the most common co-occurring conditions in people with autism spectrum disorder. The amygdala has been identified as related to anxiety in populations with and without autism, yet associations in autism were based on relatively small or developmentally constrained samples, leaving questions as to whether these results hold at different developmental ages and in a larger, more robust sample.


      Structural neuroimaging and parent report of anxiety symptoms of children aged 5 to 13 with (n = 123) and without (n = 171) a diagnosis of autism were collected from the University of Maryland and three sites from the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange. Standardized residuals for bilateral amygdala volumes were computed adjusting for site, hemispheric volumes, and covariates (age, sex, Full Scale Intelligence Quotient).


      Clinically significant anxiety symptoms did not differentiate amygdala volumes between groups (i.e., autism and anxiety, autism without anxiety, without autism or anxiety). No significant association between left or right amygdala volumes and anxiety scores was observed among the sample of individuals with autism. Meta-analytic and Bayes Factor estimations provided additional support for the null hypothesis. Age, sex, and autism severity did not moderate associations between anxiety and amygdala volumes.


      No relation between amygdala volumes and anxiety symptoms in children with autism was observed in the largest sample to investigate this question. We discuss directions for future research to determine whether additional factors including age or method of assessment may contribute to this lack of association.
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