Background: Subcortical ischemic vascular dementia has been ascribed to prominent frontal lobe dysfunction secondary to ischemic lesions in frontothalamic circuits. Whether small-vessel disease in fact predominantly affects the frontal lobes is not well documented.
Objective: To investigate the effects of subcortical lesions (lacunes and white matter lesions [WML]) on cortical function, as reflected in glucose metabolism and cognitive function, in elderly individuals.
Design: Cross-sectional analyses of case series.
Setting: Multicenter, university-based study of subcortical vascular dementia.
Patients: Persons with normal cognition, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia and with and without lacunes on magnetic resonance images.
Main outcome measures: Regional cerebral glucose metabolism, normalized regional metabolic activity, and neuropsychological test scores. Major hypotheses were that volume of lacunes and WML correlate selectively with hypometabolism of prefrontal cortex and failure of executive cognitive ability.
Results: Lacunes correlated with metabolic rates in dorsolateral frontal cortex (DLF); WML substantially reduced metabolic rates throughout cortex, most strongly so in DLF. When regional metabolic activity was normalized to whole brain activity, lacunes remained correlated with DLF activity, whereas the WML effect was no longer found, probably because of its general distribution. Regional cerebral glucose metabolism and normalized activity in DLF also correlated with cortical atrophy. Metabolic activity in DLF correlated with executive function, memory, and global cognitive function, while activity in middle temporal gyrus correlated with memory and global function but not executive function.
Conclusions: The metabolic effects of lacunes and WML are most apparent in DLF, but the effects of WML are generalized and frontal hypometabolism correlates with memory and global impairment, cognitive as well as executive function. The effects of subcortical cerebrovascular disease appear to converge on the frontal lobes but are diffuse, complex, and of modest magnitude.