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The effect of intellectual ability on functional activation in a neurodevelopmental disorder: preliminary evidence from multiple fMRI studies in Williams syndrome

Jennifer R Pryweller12*, Suzanne N Avery3, Jennifer U Blackford245, Elisabeth M Dykens256 and Tricia A Thornton-Wells27

Author Affiliations

1 Interdisciplinary Studies in Neuroimaging of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA

2 Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

3 Vanderbilt Brain Institute, Neuroscience Graduate Program, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

4 Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

5 Department of Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN, USA

6 Department of Psychology and Human Development, Peabody College|, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

7 Center for Human Genetics Research, Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, Vanderbilt Institute of Imaging Science, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA

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Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2012, 4:24  doi:10.1186/1866-1955-4-24

Published: 26 October 2012



Williams syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder caused by the deletion of approximately 25 genes at 7q11.23 that involves mild to moderate intellectual disability (ID). When using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare individuals with ID to typically developing individuals, there is a possibility that differences in IQ contribute to between-group differences in BOLD signal. If IQ is correlated with BOLD signal, then group-level analyses should adjust for IQ, or else IQ should be matched between groups. If, however, IQ is not correlated with BOLD signal, no such adjustment or criteria for matching (and exclusion) based on IQ is necessary.


In this study, we aimed to test this hypothesis systematically using four extant fMRI datasets in WS. Participants included 29 adult subjects with WS (17 men) demonstrating a wide range of standardized IQ scores (composite IQ mean = 67, SD = 17.2). We extracted average BOLD activation for both cognitive and task-specific anatomically defined regions of interest (ROIs) in each individual and correlated BOLD with composite IQ scores, verbal IQ scores and non-verbal IQ scores in Spearman rank correlation tests.


Of the 312 correlations performed, only six correlations (2%) in four ROIs reached statistical significance at a P value < 0.01, but none survived correction for multiple testing. All six correlations were positive. Therefore, none supports the hypothesis that IQ is negatively correlated with BOLD response.


These data suggest that the inclusion of subjects with below normal IQ does not introduce a confounding factor, at least for some types of fMRI studies with low cognitive load. By including subjects who are representative of IQ range for the targeted disorder, findings are more likely to generalize to that population.

IQ; BOLD fMRI; Williams syndrome; Intellectual disability