The impact of quality control on cortical morphometry comparisons in autism
Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) quality is known to impact and bias neuroanatomical estimates and downstream analysis, including case-control comparisons, and a growing body of work has demonstrated the importance of careful quality control (QC) and evaluated the impact of image and image-processing quality. However, the growing size of typical neuroimaging datasets presents an additional challenge to QC, which is typically extremely time and labour intensive. One of the most important aspects of MRI quality is the accuracy of processed outputs, which have been shown to impact estimated neurodevelopmental trajectories. Here, we evaluate whether the quality of surface reconstructions by FreeSurfer (one of the most widely used MRI processing pipelines) interacts with clinical and demographic factors. We present a tool, FSQC, that enables quick and efficient yet thorough assessment of outputs of the FreeSurfer processing pipeline. We validate our method against other existing QC metrics, including the automated FreeSurfer Euler number, two other manual ratings of raw image quality, and two popular automated QC methods. We show strikingly similar spatial patterns in the relationship between each QC measure and cortical thickness; relationships for cortical volume and surface area are largely consistent across metrics, though with some notable differences. We next demonstrate that thresholding by QC score attenuates but does not eliminate the impact of quality on cortical estimates. Finally, we explore different ways of controlling for quality when examining differences between autistic individuals and neurotypical controls in the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange (ABIDE) dataset, demonstrating that inadequate control for quality can alter results of case-control comparisons.