Higher serum cholesterol is associated with intensified age-related neural network decoupling and cognitive decline in early- to mid-life

Hum Brain Mapp. 2017 Jun;38(6):3249-3261. doi: 10.1002/hbm.23587. Epub 2017 Mar 31.


Mounting evidence indicates that serum cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease intensify normative trajectories of age-related cognitive decline. However, the neural mechanisms by which this occurs remain largely unknown. To understand the impact of cholesterol on brain networks, we applied graph theory to resting-state fMRI in a large sample of early- to mid-life Veterans (N = 206, Meanage = 32). A network emerged (centered on the banks of the superior temporal sulcus) that evidenced age-related decoupling (i.e., decreased network connectivity with age), but only in participants with clinically-elevated total cholesterol (≥180 mg/dL). Crucially, decoupling in this network corresponded to greater day-to-day disability and mediated age-related declines in psychomotor speed. Finally, examination of network organization revealed a pattern of age-related dedifferentiation for the banks of the superior temporal sulcus, again present only with higher cholesterol. More specifically, age was related to decreasing within-module communication (indexed by Within-Module Degree Z-Score) and increasing between-module communication (indexed by Participation Coefficient), but only in participants with clinically-elevated cholesterol. Follow-up analyses indicated that all findings were driven by low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, rather than high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or triglycerides, which is interesting as LDL levels have been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, whereas HDL levels appear inversely related to such disease. These findings provide novel insight into the deleterious effects of cholesterol on brain health and suggest that cholesterol accelerates the impact of age on neural trajectories by disrupting connectivity in circuits implicated in integrative processes and behavioral control. Hum Brain Mapp 38:3249-3261, 2017. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: aging; caudate nucleus; cognition; graph theory; lipids; magnetic resonance imaging; risk factors; temporal lobe; veterans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aging*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cholesterol / blood*
  • Cognition Disorders / blood*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Cognition Disorders / pathology*
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / blood
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / pathology


  • Cholesterol
  • Oxygen