Effects of age on the hippocampus and verbal memory in adults with autism spectrum disorder: Longitudinal versus cross-sectional findings

Broc A. Pagni, Melissa J.M. Walsh, Edward Ofori, Kewei Chen, Georgia Sullivan, Jocelyn Alvar, Leanna Monahan, Nicolas Guerithault, Shanna Delaney, B. Blair Braden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Research studying aging in adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is growing, but longitudinal work is needed. Autistic adults have increased risk of dementia, altered hippocampal volumes and fornix integrity, and verbal memory difficulties compared with neurotypical (NT) adults. This study examined longitudinal aging in middle-age adults with ASD versus a matched NT group, and compared findings with cross-sectional age effects across a broad adult age range. Participants were 194 adults with (n = 106; 74 male) and without (n = 88; 52 male) ASD, ages 18–71. Participants (n = 45; 40–70 age range) with two visits (2–3 years apart) were included in a longitudinal analysis. Hippocampal volume, fornix fractional anisotropy (FA), and verbal memory were measured via T1-weighted MRI, diffusion tensor imaging, and the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test, respectively. Longitudinal mixed models were used for hippocampal system variables and reliable change index categories were used for Auditory Verbal Learning Test analyses. Multivariate regression was used for cross-sectional analyses. Middle-age adults with ASD had greater longitudinal hippocampal volume loss and were more likely to show clinically meaningful decline in short-term memory, compared with NT. In contrast, cross-sectional associations between increasing age and worsening short-term memory were identified in NT, but not autistic adults. Reduced fornix FA and long-term memory in ASD were found across the broad cross-sectional age range. These preliminary longitudinal findings suggest accelerated hippocampal volume loss in ASD and slightly higher rates of clinically-meaningful decline in verbal short-term memory. Contradictory cross-sectional and longitudinal results underscore the importance of longitudinal aging research in autistic adults. Lay Summary: Autistic adults have increased risk of dementia, differences in brain memory structures, and difficulty with memory compared with neurotypical (NT) adults. However, there are no publications that follow the same middle-age autistic adults over time to see how their brain and memory change. Our preliminary findings in a small middle-age autism sample suggest a key memory brain structure, the hippocampus, may shrink faster over 2–3 years compared with NT, and short-term memory may become more challenging for some. Across a broad adult range, autistic adults also had reduced integrity of connections to the hippocampus and greater challenges with long-term memory. In our larger sample across a broad age range, the results did not hint at this aforementioned pattern of accelerated aging. This underscores the importance of more aging research in autism, and especially research where people are followed over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAutism Research
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

Keywords

  • aging/ASD in adults
  • executive
  • functioning
  • hippocampus
  • longitudinal data analysis
  • magnetic resonance imaging – structural
  • memory
  • neuroimaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)

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