Postmortem MRI: a novel window into the neurobiology of late life cognitive decline

Neurobiol Aging. 2016 Sep:45:169-177. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2016.05.023. Epub 2016 Jun 6.


This study tested the hypothesis that indices of brain tissue integrity derived from postmortem magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are associated with late life decline in cognitive function and dementia, over and above contributions from common age-related neuropathologies. Cerebral hemispheres were obtained from 425 deceased older adults who had undergone 2 or more annual cognitive assessments, which included clinical diagnosis of dementia. Specimens underwent MRI to produce maps of transverse relaxation rate, R2. Voxelwise regression revealed brain regions where R2 was associated with cognitive decline. We then used random effects models to quantify the extent to which R2 accounted for variation in decline, after adjustment for demographics and neuropathologic indices of the 3 most common causes of dementia: Alzheimer's disease, cerebrovascular disease, and Lewy body disease. We additionally tested whether R2 was tied to greater likelihood of clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer's dementia using logistic regression models. During an average of 8.1 years, the mean rate of decline in global cognitive function was 0.13 unit per year (p < 0.0001). The tissue alteration most commonly related to decline was R2 slowing in white matter. Each unit decrease in R2 was associated with an additional 0.053-unit per year steepening of the rate of global cognitive decline (p < 0.001). Furthermore, R2 accounted for 8.4% of the variance in rate of global cognitive decline, above and beyond the 26.5% accounted for by demographics and neuropathologic indices, and 7.1%-11.2% of the variance of the decline rates in episodic, semantic, and working memory and perceptual speed. Alterations in R2 were also related to an increased odds of clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer's dementia (odds ratio = 2.000, 95% confidence interval 1.600, 2.604). Therefore, postmortem MRI indices of brain tissue integrity, particularly in white matter, are useful for elucidating the basis of late life cognitive impairment in older adults and complement traditional indices of neuropathology derived using histopathologic methods.

Keywords: Alzheimer's disease; Postmortem MRI; Transverse relaxation; Voxelwise; White matter.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / pathology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications
  • Alzheimer Disease / diagnostic imaging
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Postmortem Changes*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging*
  • White Matter / pathology