Cerebral white matter exhibits age-related degenerative changes during the course of normal aging, including decreases in axon density and alterations in axonal structure. Noninvasive approaches to measure these microstructural alterations throughout the lifespan would be invaluable for understanding the substrate and regional variability of age-related white matter degeneration. Recent advances in diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have leveraged high gradient strengths to increase sensitivity toward axonal size and density in the living human brain. Here, we examined the relationship between age and indices of axon diameter and packing density using high-gradient strength diffusion MRI in 36 healthy adults (aged 22-72) in well-defined central white matter tracts in the brain. A recently validated method for inferring the effective axonal compartment size and packing density from diffusion MRI measurements acquired with 300 mT/m maximum gradient strength was applied to the in vivo human brain to obtain indices of axon diameter and density in the corpus callosum, its sub-regions, and adjacent anterior and posterior fibers in the forceps minor and forceps major. The relationships between the axonal metrics, corpus callosum area and regional gray matter volume were also explored. Results revealed a significant increase in axon diameter index with advancing age in the whole corpus callosum. Similar analyses in sub-regions of the corpus callosum showed that age-related alterations in axon diameter index and axon density were most pronounced in the genu of the corpus callosum and relatively absent in the splenium, in keeping with findings from previous histological studies. The significance of these correlations was mirrored in the forceps minor and forceps major, consistent with previously reported decreases in FA in the forceps minor but not in the forceps major with age. Alterations in the axonal imaging metrics paralleled decreases in corpus callosum area and regional gray matter volume with age. Among older adults, results from cognitive testing suggested an association between larger effective compartment size in the corpus callosum, particularly within the genu of the corpus callosum, and lower scores on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, largely driven by deficits in short-term memory. The current study suggests that high-gradient diffusion MRI may be sensitive to the axonal substrate of age-related white matter degeneration reflected in traditional DTI metrics and provides further evidence for regionally selective alterations in white matter microstructure with advancing age.
Keywords: Aging; Axon diameter; Diffusion MRI; High b-value; Human connectome project (HCP); Human connectome scanner; Tissue microstructure; White matter.
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