Subcortical hyperintensities in the cholinergic system are associated with improvements in executive function in older adults with coronary artery disease undergoing cardiac rehabilitation

Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2018 Feb;33(2):279-287. doi: 10.1002/gps.4729. Epub 2017 May 5.


Objective: Coronary artery disease (CAD) is frequently accompanied by white matter hyperintensities and executive dysfunction. Because acetylcholine is important in executive function, these symptoms may be exacerbated by subcortical hyperintensities (SH) located in cholinergic (CH) tracts. This study investigated the effects of SH on cognitive changes in CAD patients undergoing a 48-week cardiac rehabilitation program.

Methods: Fifty patients (age 66.5 ± 7.1 years, 84% male) underwent the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke - Canadian Stroke Network neurocognitive battery at baseline and 48 weeks. Patients underwent a 48-week cardiac program and completed neuroimaging at baseline. Subcortical hyperintensities in CH tracts were measured using Lesion Explorer. Repeated measures general linear models were used to examine interactions between SH and longitudinal cognitive outcomes, controlling for age, education, and max VO2 change as a measure of fitness.

Results: In patients with SH in CH tracts, there was a significant interaction with the Trail Making Test (TMT) part A and part B over time. Patients without SH improved on average 16.6 and 15.0% on the TMT-A and TMT-B, respectively. Patients with SH on average showed no improvements in either TMT-A or TMT-B over time. There were no significant differences in other cognitive measures.

Conclusion: These results suggest that CAD patients with SH in CH tracts improve less than those without SH in CH tracts, over 48 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation. Thus, SH in CH tracts may contribute to longitudinal cognitive decline following a cardiac event and may represent a vascular risk factor of cognitive decline. © 2017 The Authors. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Keywords: cerebrovascular disease; cognition; executive function; neuroimaging; vascular dementia; white matter disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Canada
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation*
  • Cholinergic Fibers / pathology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Coronary Artery Disease* / physiopathology
  • Coronary Artery Disease* / rehabilitation
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuroimaging / methods
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Trail Making Test
  • White Matter / pathology*