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Testing for association of the monoamine oxidase A promoter polymorphism with brain structure volumes in both autism and the fragile X syndrome

Thomas H Wassink1*, Heather C Hazlett2, Lea K Davis3, Allan L Reiss4 and Joseph Piven2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, 1-191 MEB, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA

2 Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center and Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

3 Department of Medicine, Section of Genetic Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA

4 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research, School of Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA

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Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2014, 6:6  doi:10.1186/1866-1955-6-6

Published: 26 March 2014



Autism and the fragile X syndrome (FXS) are related to each other genetically and symptomatically. A cardinal biological feature of both disorders is abnormalities of cerebral cortical brain volumes. We have previously shown that the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) promoter polymorphism is associated with cerebral cortical volumes in children with autism, and we now sought to determine whether the association was also present in children with FXS.


Participants included 47 2-year-old Caucasian boys with FXS, some of whom also had autism, as well as 34 2-year-old boys with idiopathic autism analyzed in a previous study. The MAOA promoter polymorphism was genotyped and tested for relationships with gray and white matter volumes of the cerebral cortical lobes and cerebro-spinal fluid volume of the lateral ventricles.


MAOA genotype effects in FXS children were the same as those previously observed in idiopathic autism: the low activity MAOA promoter polymorphism allele was associated with increased gray and white matter volumes in all cerebral lobes. The effect was most pronounced in frontal lobe gray matter and all three white matter regions: frontal gray, F = 4.39, P = 0.04; frontal white, F = 5.71, P = 0.02; temporal white, F = 4.73, P = 0.04; parieto-occipital white, F = 5.00, P = 0.03. Analysis of combined FXS and idiopathic autism samples produced P values for these regions <0.01 and effect sizes of approximately 0.10.


The MAOA promoter polymorphism is similarly associated with brain structure volumes in both idiopathic autism and FXS. These data illuminate a number of important aspects of autism and FXS heritability: a genetic effect on a core biological trait of illness, the specificity/generalizability of the genetic effect, and the utility of examining individual genetic effects on the background of a single gene disorder such as FXS.

Autism; Fragile X syndrome; Brain structure; Monoamine oxidase A; Polymorphism