White Matter Integrity in the Brain is Disrupted in Alzheimer’s Gene Mutants.


The structural integrity of the brain’s white matter as measured with an advanced MRI technique is lower in cognitively normal people who carry a genetic mutation associated with disease than it is in non-carriers, according to a study in Radiology. Researchers said the findings show the promise of widely available imaging techniques in helping to understand early structural changes in the brain before symptoms of dementia become apparent.

People who carry the autosomal dominant Alzheimer disease (ADAD) mutation have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that affects about one in nine people in the United States. The mutation is linked to a buildup of abnormal protein called amyloid-beta in the brain that affects both the gray matter and the signal-carrying white matter.

“It’s thought that the amyloid deposition in the gray matter could disrupt its function, and as a result the white matter won’t function correctly or could even atrophy,” said study lead author Jeffrey W. Prescott, M.D., Ph.D., neuroradiologist at the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland.

An earlier study by Dr. Prescott and colleagues on patients with sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, which comprises 99% of cases, found that white matter structural connectivity, as measured with an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), degraded significantly as patients developed more amyloid burden.

“The current work extends these results by showing that similar findings are detectable in asymptomatic at-risk patients,” said Jeffrey R. Petrella, M.D., professor of radiology at Duke University and senior author on both studies.

In the new study, Dr. Prescott and colleagues used data from the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN) to compare ADAD mutation carriers with non-carriers to see if there were changes in structural connectivity that could be related to the mutation.

The study participants included 30 mutation carriers, mean age 34 years, and 38 non-carriers, mean age 37. The participants all had normal cognition when they underwent structural brain MRI and DTI.

Analysis showed that mutation carriers had lower structural connectivity in the frontoparietal control network, which connects areas mainly in the parietal and frontal lobes, two regions known to be involved with Alzheimer’s disease. Among mutation carriers, there was a correlation between expected years until onset of symptoms and white matter structural connectivity in the frontoparietal control network, even when controlling for amyloid plaque burden.

“This suggests that DTI measures of network integrity may serve as a surrogate for the brain’s resilience to pathologic attack,” Dr. Petrella said.

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