In this article we review recent research on diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of white matter (WM) integrity and the implications for age-related differences in cognition. Neurobiological mechanisms defined from DTI analyses suggest that a primary dimension of age-related decline in WM is a decline in the structural integrity of myelin, particularly in brain regions that myelinate later developmentally. Research integrating behavioral measures with DTI indicates that WM integrity supports the communication among cortical networks, particularly those involving executive function, perceptual speed, and memory (i.e., fluid cognition). In the absence of significant disease, age shares a substantial portion of the variance associated with the relation between WM integrity and fluid cognition. Current data are consistent with one model in which age-related decline in WM integrity contributes to a decreased efficiency of communication among networks for fluid cognitive abilities. Neurocognitive disorders for which older adults are at risk, such as depression, further modulate the relation between WM and cognition, in ways that are not as yet entirely clear. Developments in DTI technology are providing a new insight into both the neurobiological mechanisms of aging WM and the potential contribution of DTI to understanding functional measures of brain activity. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Imaging Brain Aging and Neurodegenerative disease.
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