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Ontogenetic patterns in human frontal sinus shape: A longitudinal study using elliptical Fourier analysis

NCJ Number
Lauren N. Butaric; Jessica L. Campbell; Kristine M. Fischer; Heather M. Garvin
Date Published
May 2022

The purpose of this study was to investigate at what age the frontal sinus attains its final shape, and whether sex-based differences in ontogeny are evident, using a longitudinal sample of posterior-anterior (PA) frontal radiographs from the AAOF Legacy Collection.


Frontal sinus morphology is highly variable across individuals, but little is known regarding how or at what age that variation is reached. Existing ontogenetic studies are conflicting and often cross-sectional in nature, limiting understanding of individualistic growth. Studies investigating sinus growth with longitudinal series often focus on lateral cephalograms and consequently do not capture the sinus morphological features that are most relevant to clinical and medicolegal settings (e.g., arcade/scalloping, width-to-height dimensions, asymmetry). Longitudinal analysis of sinus morphology from frontal radiographs is important to understand when sinus morphology stabilizes. In the current study, frontal sinus outlines were manually traced in 935 radiographs from 111 individuals (55F/56M) spanning 8–29 years of age. Outlines were subjected to elliptical Fourier analysis (EFA) and underwent principal components analysis (PCA). PC1 (51.02% of variation) appears to represent the relative height and breadth of the sinus, PC2 (11.73%) and PC3 (10.03%) captures the degree of relative complexity in the outlines. Individual PC scores were plotted against age-in-months with individual Loess growth curves. Overall, younger individuals typically display relatively shorter, flatter sinuses, increasing in vertical complexity with age. Mixed-effect models on PC1 indicate significant effects for the repeated measure of years (p < 0.001). Within individuals, Euclidean distances of PCs between each sinus outline and their oldest-age outline (i.e., final morphology) were calculated and plotted against age-in-months with Loess growth curves. The results indicate that final frontal sinus morphology is mostly attained by 20 yoa regardless of sex. There is sexual dimorphism in ontogenetic trajectories: females attain frontal sinus shape earlier than males. Specifically, Loess growth curves of the Euclidean distances to final sinus shape indicate that female shape shows decreased development at 14–16 yoa, with males approaching stabilization at 18–20 yoa. These trends were supported by paired t-tests on PC1 between each year and the oldest age, whereby significant differences end for females starting at 15 and 18 yoa for males. The timing of shape-stabilization in the current study closely aligns with previous studies on linear and size dimensions, indicating a close relationship between the ontogeny of frontal sinus shape and size. This research has several implications in diverse fields. Documenting ontogenetic patterns in modern humans could lead to more accurate interpretations of frontal sinus variation in hominin lineages. Understanding the age at which frontal sinus shape and size stabilizes in pediatric populations has important clinical implications, with future studies needed to investigate if/how sinus development directly relates to sinonasal disease susceptibility (e.g., sinusitis), surgical complications, and/or expected trauma patterns. For forensic practitioners utilizing frontal sinus comparisons for decedent identifications, it is important to know at what age these features stabilize to understand how much change may be expected between antemortem and postmortem radiographs. (Publisher Abstract Provided)




Date Published: May 1, 2022