Traumatic brain injury (TBI) often involves focal cortical injury and white matter (WM) damage that can be measured shortly after injury. Additionally, slowly evolving WM change can be observed but there is a paucity of research on the duration and spatial pattern of long-term changes several years post-injury. The current study utilized diffusion tensor imaging to identify regional WM changes in 12 TBI patients and nine healthy controls at three time points over a four year period. Neuropsychological testing was also administered to each participant at each time point. Results indicate that TBI patients exhibit longitudinal changes to WM indexed by reductions in fractional anisotropy (FA) in the corpus callosum, as well as FA increases in bilateral regions of the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and portions of the optic radiation (OR). FA changes appear to be driven by changes in radial (not axial) diffusivity, suggesting that observed longitudinal FA changes may be related to changes in myelin rather than to axons. Neuropsychological correlations indicate that regional FA values in the corpus callosum and sagittal stratum (SS) correlate with performance on finger tapping and visuomotor speed tasks (respectively) in TBI patients, and that longitudinal increases in FA in the SS, SLF, and OR correlate with improved performance on the visuomotor speed (SS) task as well as a derived measure of cognitive control (SLF, OR). The results of this study showing progressive WM deterioration for several years post-injury contribute to a growing literature supporting the hypothesis that TBI should be viewed not as an isolated incident but as a prolonged disease state. The observations of long-term neurological and functional improvement provide evidence that some ameliorative change may be occurring concurrently with progressive degeneration.
Keywords: DTI; TBI; diffusion tensor imaging; longitudinal; neuropsychology; recovery; traumatic brain injury.