Background and purpose: Neuropathological examination in Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) reveals neuronal loss in the gray matter (GM) nuclei and degeneration of the white matter (WM) tracts in the spinal cord, brainstem and cerebellum, while the cerebral hemispheres are substantially spared. Tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS) enables an unbiased whole-brain quantitative analysis of the fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) of the brain WM tracts in vivo.
Patients and methods: We assessed with TBSS 14 patients with genetically confirmed FRDA and 14 age- and sex-matched healthy controls who were also examined with voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to assess regional atrophy of the GM and WM.
Results: TBSS revealed decreased FA in the inferior and superior cerebellar peduncles and the corticospinal tracts in the medullary pyramis, in WM tracts of the right cerebellar hemisphere and in the right occipito-frontal and inferior longitudinal fasciculi. Increased MD was observed in the superior cerebellar peduncles, deep cerebellar WM, posterior limbs of the internal capsule and retrolenticular area, bilaterally, and in the WM underlying the left central sulcus. Decreased FA in the left superior cerebellar peduncle correlated with clinical severity. VBM showed small symmetric areas of loss of bulk of the peridentate WM which also correlated with clinical severity.
Conclusions: TBSS enables in vivo demonstration of degeneration of the brainstem and cerebellar WM tracts which neuropathological examination indicates to be specifically affected in FRDA. TBSS complements VBM and might be a more sensitive tool to detect WM structural changes in degenerative diseases of the CNS.