Effects of regional brain volumes on cognition in sickle cell anemia: A developmental perspective

Front Neurol. 2023 Feb 13:14:1101223. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2023.1101223. eCollection 2023.


Background and objectives: Cognitive difficulties in people with sickle cell anemia (SCA) are related to lower processing speed index (PSI) and working memory index (WMI). However, risk factors are poorly understood so preventative strategies have not been explored. Brain volumes, specifically white matter volumes (WMV) which increases through early adulthood, have been associated with better cognition in healthy typically developing individuals. In patients with SCA, the reduced WMV and total subcortical volumes noted could explain cognitive deficits. We therefore examined developmental trajectories for regional brain volumes and cognitive endpoints in patients with SCA.

Methods: Data from two cohorts, the Sleep and Asthma Cohort and Prevention of Morbidity in SCA, were available. MRI data included T1-weighted axial images, pre-processed before regional volumes were extracted using Free-surfer. PSI and WMI from the Weschler scales of intelligence were used to test neurocognitive performance. Hemoglobin, oxygen saturation, hydroxyurea treatment and socioeconomic status from education deciles were available.

Results: One hundred and twenty nine patients (66 male) and 50 controls (21 male) aged 8-64 years were included. Brain volumes did not significantly differ between patients and controls. Compared with controls, PSI and WMI were significantly lower in patients with SCA, predicted by increasing age and male sex, with lower hemoglobin in the model for PSI but no effect of hydroxyurea treatment. In male patients with SCA only, WMV, age and socioeconomic status predicted PSI, while total subcortical volumes predicted WMI. Age positively and significantly predicted WMV in the whole group (patients + controls). There was a trend for age to negatively predict PSI in the whole group. For total subcortical volume and WMI, age predicted decrease only in the patient group. Developmental trajectory analysis revealed that PSI only was significantly delayed in patients at 8 years of age; the rate of development for the cognitive and brain volume data did not differ significantly from controls.

Discussion: Increasing age and male sex negatively impact cognition in SCA, with processing speed, also predicted by hemoglobin, delayed by mid childhood. Associations with brain volumes were seen in males with SCA. Brain endpoints, calibrated against large control datasets, should be considered for randomized treatment trials.

Keywords: brain volume; cognition; development; processing speed; sickle cell disease; working memory.

Grants and funding

MK and HS were funded by Action Medical Research (GN2509). RM was supported by the EPSRC-funded UCL Center for Doctoral Training in Medical Imaging (EP/L016478/1). The work was supported by the National Institute for Health Research and Biomedical Research Center at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Child Health (IS-BRC-1215-20012).