Introduction: Neuropsychiatric manifestations are common in childhood-onset systemic lupus erythematosus (cSLE) and often include neurocognitive dysfunction (NCD). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can measure brain activation during tasks that invoke domains of cognitive function impaired by cSLE. This study investigates specific changes in brain function attributable to NCD in cSLE that have potential to serve as imaging biomarkers.
Methods: Formal neuropsychological testing was done to measure cognitive ability and to identify NCD. Participants performed fMRI tasks probing three cognitive domains impacted by cSLE: visuoconstructional ability (VCA), working memory, and attention. Imaging data, collected on 3-Tesla scanners, included a high-resolution T1-weighted anatomic reference image followed by a T2*-weighted whole-brain echo planar image series for each fMRI task. Brain activation using blood oxygenation level-dependent contrast was compared between cSLE patients with NCD (NCD-group, n = 7) vs. without NCD (noNCD-group, n = 14) using voxel-wise and region of interest-based analyses. The relationship of brain activation during fMRI tasks and performance in formal neuropsychological testing was assessed.
Results: Greater brain activation was observed in the noNCD-group vs. NCD-group during VCA and working memory fMRI tasks. Conversely, compared to the noNCD-group, the NCD-group showed more brain activation during the attention fMRI task. In region of interest analysis, brain activity during VCA and working memory fMRI tasks was positively associated with the participants' neuropsychological test performance. In contrast, brain activation during the attention fMRI task was negatively correlated with neuropsychological test performance. While the NCD group performed worse than the noNCD group during VCA and working memory tasks, the attention task was performed equally well by both groups.
Conclusions: NCD in patients with cSLE is characterized by differential activation of functional neuronal networks during fMRI tasks probing working memory, VCA, and attention. Results suggest a compensatory mechanism allows maintenance of attentional performance under NCD. This mechanism appears to break down for the VCA and working memory challenges presented in this study. The observation that neuronal network activation is related to the formal neuropsychological testing performance makes fMRI a candidate imaging biomarker for cSLE-associated NCD.