White matter lesions defined by diffusion tensor imaging in older adults

Ann Neurol. 2011 Sep;70(3):465-76. doi: 10.1002/ana.22484.


Objective: The cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying magnetic resonance imaging-defined white matter (WM) changes associated with age-related cognitive decline remain poorly defined. We tested the hypothesis that WM lesions in older adults, defined by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), arise in the setting of vascular brain injury (VBI) and are characterized by increased free radical injury and aberrant oligodendrocyte lineage (OL) cell response to injury.

Methods: We undertook a multimodal analysis of prefrontal cortex (PFC) WM from 25 autopsies derived from a population-based cohort where VBI and Alzheimer disease (AD) frequently coincide. Ex vivo high field strength DTI measurements of fractional anisotropy (FA), apparent diffusion coefficient, and axial and radial (D(⊥) ) diffusivity were measured at high magnetic field strength (11.7T) and analyzed relative to quantitative in vivo biomarkers of free radical injury, an OL-specific marker Olig2, and histologic evaluation of hyaluronan (HA), an inhibitor of OL maturation.

Results: Coincident AD and VBI showed significant association with lower FA and a robust relationship between decreasing FA and increasing D(⊥) . Free radical injury to docosahexaenoate and adrenate in PFC WM was significantly elevated in cases with VBI independent of AD, and was inversely correlated with FA. Similarly, increased density of Olig2-immunoreactive cells in PFC WM was significantly associated with VBI independent of AD and colocalized with regions enriched in HA.

Interpretation: DTI-defined PFC WM lesions in older individuals are characterized by free radical injury to myelin and neuroaxonal elements that coincides with pronounced expansion of the pool of OL cells in HA-rich regions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Autopsy
  • Axons / pathology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cell Lineage / physiology
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / complications
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / pathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging / methods*
  • Female
  • Free Radicals
  • Humans
  • Hyaluronic Acid / metabolism
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Myelin Sheath / metabolism
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / pathology
  • Oligodendroglia / physiology
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology


  • Free Radicals
  • Hyaluronic Acid