Head size, age and gender adjustment in MRI studies: a necessary nuisance?
Barnes J., Ridgway GR., Bartlett J., Henley SMD., Lehmann M., Hobbs N., Clarkson MJ., MacManus DG., Ourselin S., Fox NC.
Imaging studies of cerebral volumes often adjust for factors such as age that may confound between-subject comparisons. However the use of nuisance covariates in imaging studies is inconsistent, which can make interpreting results across studies difficult. Using magnetic resonance images of 78 healthy controls we assessed the effects of age, gender, head size and scanner upgrade on region of interest (ROI) volumetry, cortical thickness and voxel-based morphometric (VBM) measures. We found numerous significant associations between these variables and volumetric measures: cerebral volumes and cortical thicknesses decreased with increasing age, men had larger volumes and smaller thicknesses than women, and increasing head size was associated with larger volumes. The relationships between most ROIs and head size volumes were non-linear. With age, gender, head size and upgrade in one model we found that volumes and thicknesses decreased with increasing age, women had larger volumes than men (VBM, whole-brain and white matter volumes), increasing head size was associated with larger volumes but not cortical thickness, and scanner upgrade had an effect on thickness and some volume measures. The effects of gender on cortical thickness when adjusting for head size, age and upgrade showed some non-significant effect (women>men), whereas the independent effect of head size showed little pattern. We conclude that age and head size should be considered in ROI volume studies, age, gender and upgrade should be considered for cortical thickness studies and all variables require consideration for VBM analyses. Division of all volumes by head size is unlikely to be adequate owing to their non-proportional relationship.