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Spatial Gradient of Microstructural Changes in Normal-Appearing White Matter in Tracts Affected by White Matter Hyperintensities in Older Age

By Susana Munoz-Maniega, Rozanna Meijboom, Francesca M Chappell, Maria C Valdés Hernández, John M. Starr, Mark Bastin, Ian J Deary, Joanna M. Wardlaw

Posted 09 Sep 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/412064 (published DOI: 10.3389/fneur.2019.00784)

Brain white matter hyperintensities (WMH), common in older adults, may contribute to cortical disconnection and cognitive dysfunction. The presence of WMH within white matter (WM) tracts indicates underlying microstructural WM changes that may also affect the normal-appearing WM (NAWM) of a tract. We performed an exploratory study using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging of 52 healthy participants from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 (age 72.2 ± 0.7 years) selected to include a range of WMH burden, to quantify microstructural changes of tracts intersecting WMH. We reconstructed tracts using automated tractography and identified intersections with WMH. Tissue volumes and water diffusion tensor parameters (mean diffusivity (MD) and fractional anisotropy (FA)) were established for tract-WMH and tract-NAWM. MD and FA were also measured for tract-NAWM at 2 mm incremental distances from the tract-WMH edge, and from the edge of nearby, non-intersecting, WMH. We observed microstructural changes in tract-WMH suggestive of tissue damage. Tract-NAWM also showed a spatial gradient of FA and MD abnormalities, which diminished with distance from the tract-WMH. Nearby WMH lesions, not directly crossed by the tract, also affected tract microstructure with a similar pattern. Additionally, both FA and MD changes in tract-NAWM were predicted by FA and MD changes respectively in tract-WMH. FA was also predicted by tract-WMH overlap volume, whereas MD was better predicted by whole-brain WMH load. These results suggest that tract-NAWM microstructure is affected by the pathological process underlying WMH, when WMH are either within or near to the tract. The changes in NAWM tract tissue may indicate future lesion progression and may play an important role in cognitive ageing.

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