Introduction: Fatigue is the most frequently reported persistent symptom following a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), but the explanations for the persisting fatigue symptoms in mTBI remain controversial. In this study, we investigated the change of cerebral blood flow during the performance of a psychomotor vigilance task (PVT) by using pseudo-continuous arterial spin labeling (PCASL) MRI technique to better understand the relationship between fatigability and brain activity in mTBI.
Material and methods: Ten patients (mean age: 37.5 ± 11.2 years) with persistent complaints of fatigue after mTBI and 10 healthy controls (mean age 36.9 ± 11.0 years) were studied. Both groups completed a 20-min long PVT inside a clinical MRI scanner during simultaneous measurements of reaction time and regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) with PCASL technique. Cognitive fatigability and neural activity during PVT were analyzed by dividing the performance and rCBF data into quintiles in addition to the assessment of self-rated fatigue before and after the PVT.
Results: The patients showed significant fatigability during the PVT while the controls had a stable performance. The variability in performance was also significantly higher among the patients, indicating monitoring difficulty. A three-way ANOVA, modeling of the rCBF data demonstrated that there was a significant interaction effect between the subject group and performance time during PVT in a mainly frontal/thalamic network, indicating that the pattern of rCBF change for the mTBI patients differed significantly from that of healthy controls. In the mTBI patients, fatigability at the end of the PVT was related to increased rCBF in the right middle frontal gyrus, while self-rated fatigue was related to increased rCBF in left medial frontal and anterior cingulate gyri and decreases of rCBF in a frontal/thalamic network during this period.
Discussion: This study demonstrates that PCASL is a useful technique to investigate neural correlates of fatigability and fatigue in mTBI patients. Patients suffering from fatigue after mTBI used different brain networks compared to healthy controls during a vigilance task and in mTBI, there was a distinction between rCBF changes related to fatigability vs. perceived fatigue. Whether networks for fatigability and self-rated fatigue are different, needs to be investigated in future studies.
Keywords: cerebral blood flow; fatigue; functional magnetic resonance imaging; mild traumatic brain injury; pseudo-continuous arterial spin labeling.