The integrity of white matter, as measured in vivo with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), is disrupted in normal aging. A current consensus is that in adults advancing age affects anterior brain regions disproportionately more than posterior regions; however, the mainstay of studies supporting this anterior-posterior gradient is based primarily on measures of the corpus callosum. Using our quantitative fiber tracking approach, we assessed fiber tract integrity of samples of major white matter cortical, subcortical, interhemispheric, and cerebellar systems (11 bilateral and 2 callosal) on DTI data collected at 1.5T magnet strength. Participants were 55 men (age 20-78 years) and 65 women (age 28-81 years), deemed healthy and cognitively intact following interview and behavioral testing. Fiber integrity was measured as orientational diffusion coherence (fractional anisotropy, FA) and magnitude of diffusion, which was quantified separately for longitudinal diffusivity (lambdaL), an index of axonal length or number, and transverse diffusivity (lambdaT), an index of myelin integrity. Aging effects were more evident in diffusivity than FA measures. Men and women, examined separately, showed similar age-related increases in longitudinal and transverse diffusivity in fibers of the internal and external capsules bilaterally and the fornix. FA was lower and diffusivity higher in anterior than posterior fibers of regional paired comparisons (genu versus splenium and frontal versus occipital forceps). Diffusivity with older age was generally greater or FA lower in the superior than inferior fiber systems (longitudinal fasciculi, cingulate bundles), with little to no evidence for age-related degradation in pontine or cerebellar systems. The most striking sex difference emerged for the corpus callosum, for which men showed significant decline in FA and increase in longitudinal and transverse diffusivity in the genu but not splenium. By contrast, in women the age effect was present in both callosal regions, albeit modestly more so in the genu than splenium. Functional meaningfulness of these age-related differences was supported by significant correlations between DTI signs of white matter degradation and poorer performance on cognitive or motor tests. This survey of multiple fiber systems throughout the brain revealed a differential pattern of age's effect on regional FA and diffusivity and suggests mechanisms of functional degradation, attributed at least in part to compromised fiber microstructure affecting myelin and axonal morphology.
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