Objective: The aim of our study was to investigate the microstructural integrity of brain regions functionally involved in the tremor loop in patients with familial essential tremor (FET), using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).
Methods: Twenty-five patients with FET, 15 patients with Parkinson disease (PD), and 15 healthy subjects were studied. DTI was performed to measure fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) in various regions of interest: red nucleus, dentate nucleus (DN), cerebellar white matter, middle (MCP) and superior cerebellar peduncle (SCP), and ventrolateral thalamus.
Results: In patients with FET, FA values in the DN (median 0.19, range 0.13-0.23) were reduced (p < 0.001) compared with patients with PD (median 0.37, range 0.32-0.58) and healthy controls (median 0.36, range 0.33-0.40). In patients with FET, FA was also reduced (p = 0.003) and MD values increased (p < 0.001) in the SCP compared with patients with PD and healthy controls. Among patients with FET, those with longer disease duration showed FA values in the DN lower than those with shorter disease duration (p = 0.018). Patients with FET could be completely distinguished from both patient with PD and healthy controls using FA values of the DN alone.
Conclusion: Neuroimaging evidence of microstructural changes consistent with neurodegeneration was found in the dentate nucleus (DN) and SCP of patients with familial essential tremor. This suggests that neurodegenerative pathology of cerebellar structures may play a role in essential tremor. Further studies are needed to assess the role of fractional anisotropy and mean diffusivity changes in DN and SCP in the differential diagnosis of essential tremor and Parkinson disease, which may present similar clinical signs at the onset of disease.