Several models of neural compensation in healthy aging have been suggested to explain brain activity that aids to sustain cognitive function. Applying recently suggested criteria of "attempted" and "successful" compensation, we reviewed existing literature on compensatory mechanisms in preclinical Huntington's disease (HD) and amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI). Both disorders constitute early stages of neurodegeneration ideal for examining compensatory mechanisms and developing targeted interventions. We strived to clarify whether compensation criteria derived from healthy aging populations can be applied to early neurodegeneration. To concentrate on the close coupling of cognitive performance and brain activity, we exclusively addressed task fMRI studies. First, we found evidence for parallels in compensatory mechanisms between healthy aging and neurodegenerative disease. Several studies fulfilled criteria of attempted compensation, while reports of successful compensation were largely absent, which made it difficult to conclude on. Second, comparing working memory studies in preclinical HD and aMCI, we identified similar compensatory patterns across neurodegenerative disorders in lateral and medial prefrontal cortex. Such patterns included an inverted U-shaped relationship of neurodegeneration and compensatory activity spanning from preclinical to manifest disease. Due to the lack of studies systematically targeting all criteria of compensation, we propose an exemplary study design, including the manipulation of compensating brain areas by brain stimulation. Furthermore, we delineate the benefits of targeted interventions by non-invasive brain stimulation, as well as of unspecific interventions such as physical activity or cognitive training. Unambiguously detecting compensation in early neurodegenerative disease will help tailor interventions aiming at sustained overall functioning and delayed clinical disease onset.
Keywords: Huntington’s disease; amnestic mild cognitive impairment; compensation; functional magnetic resonance imaging; healthy aging.