Longitudinal patterns of leukoaraiosis and brain atrophy in symptomatic small vessel disease

Brain. 2016 Apr;139(Pt 4):1136-51. doi: 10.1093/brain/aww009. Epub 2016 Mar 1.


Cerebral small vessel disease is a common condition associated with lacunar stroke, cognitive impairment and significant functional morbidity. White matter hyperintensities and brain atrophy, seen on magnetic resonance imaging, are correlated with increasing disease severity. However, how the two are related remains an open question. To better define the relationship between white matter hyperintensity growth and brain atrophy, we applied a semi-automated magnetic resonance imaging segmentation analysis pipeline to a 3-year longitudinal cohort of 99 subjects with symptomatic small vessel disease, who were followed-up for ≥1 years. Using a novel two-stage warping pipeline with tissue repair step, voxel-by-voxel rate of change maps were calculated for each tissue class (grey matter, white matter, white matter hyperintensities and lacunes) for each individual. These maps capture both the distribution of disease and spatial information showing local rates of growth and atrophy. These were analysed to answer three primary questions: first, is there a relationship between whole brain atrophy and magnetic resonance imaging markers of small vessel disease (white matter hyperintensities or lacune volume)? Second, is there regional variation within the cerebral white matter in the rate of white matter hyperintensity progression? Finally, are there regionally specific relationships between the rates of white matter hyperintensity progression and cortical grey matter atrophy? We demonstrate that the rates of white matter hyperintensity expansion and grey matter atrophy are strongly correlated (Pearson's R = -0.69, P < 1 × 10(-7)), and significant grey matter loss and whole brain atrophy occurs annually (P < 0.05). Additionally, the rate of white matter hyperintensity growth was heterogeneous, occurring more rapidly within long association fasciculi. Using voxel-based quantification (family-wise error corrected P < 0.05), we show the rate of white matter hyperintensity progression is associated with increases in cortical grey matter atrophy rates, in the medial-frontal, orbito-frontal, parietal and occipital regions. Conversely, increased rates of global grey matter atrophy are significantly associated with faster white matter hyperintensity growth in the frontal and parietal regions. Together, these results link the progression of white matter hyperintensities with increasing rates of regional grey matter atrophy, and demonstrate that grey matter atrophy is the major contributor to whole brain atrophy in symptomatic cerebral small vessel disease. These measures provide novel insights into the longitudinal pathogenesis of small vessel disease, and imply that therapies aimed at reducing progression of white matter hyperintensities via end-arteriole damage may protect against secondary brain atrophy and consequent functional morbidity.

Keywords: atrophy; longitudinal; small vessel disease; voxel-based quantification; white matter hyperintensities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cerebral Small Vessel Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Cerebral Small Vessel Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Disease Progression*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Leukoaraiosis / diagnosis*
  • Leukoaraiosis / epidemiology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies