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  • Thalamic nuclei atrophy at high and heterogenous rates during cognitively unimpaired human aging. NeuroImage Choi, E. Y., Tian, L., Su, J. H., Radovan, M. T., Tourdias, T., Tran, T. T., Trelle, A. N., Mormino, E., Wagner, A. D., Rutt, B. K. 2022: 119584


    The thalamus is a central integration structure in the brain, receiving and distributing information among the cerebral cortex, subcortical structures, and the peripheral nervous system. Prior studies clearly show that the thalamus atrophies in cognitively unimpaired aging. However, the thalamus is comprised of multiple nuclei involved in a wide range of functions, and the age-related atrophy of individual thalamic nuclei remains unknown. Using a recently developed automated method of identifying thalamic nuclei (3T or 7T MRI with white-matter-nulled MPRAGE contrast and THOMAS segmentation) and a cross-sectional design, we evaluated the age-related atrophy rate for 10 thalamic nuclei (AV, CM, VA, VLA, VLP, VPL, pulvinar, LGN, MGN, MD) and an epithalamic nucleus (habenula). We also used T1-weighted images with the FreeSurfer SAMSEG segmentation method to identify and measure age-related atrophy for 11 extra-thalamic structures (cerebral cortex, cerebral white matter, cerebellar cortex, cerebellar white matter, amygdala, hippocampus, caudate, putamen, nucleus accumbens, pallidum, and lateral ventricle). In 198 cognitively unimpaired participants with ages spanning 20-88 years, we found that the whole thalamus atrophied at a rate of 0.45% per year, and that thalamic nuclei had widely varying age-related atrophy rates, ranging from 0.06% to 1.18% per year. A functional grouping analysis revealed that the thalamic nuclei involved in cognitive (AV, MD; 0.53% atrophy per year), visual (LGN, pulvinar; 0.62% atrophy per year), and auditory/vestibular (MGN; 0.64% atrophy per year) functions atrophied at significantly higher rates than those involved in motor (VA, VLA, VLP, and CM; 0.37% atrophy per year) and somatosensory (VPL; 0.32% atrophy per year) functions. A proximity-to-CSF analysis showed that the group of thalamic nuclei situated immediately adjacent to CSF atrophied at a significantly greater atrophy rate (0.59% atrophy per year) than that of the group of nuclei located farther from CSF (0.36% atrophy per year), supporting a growing hypothesis that CSF-mediated factors contribute to neurodegeneration. We did not find any significant hemispheric differences in these rates of change for thalamic nuclei. Only the CM thalamic nucleus showed a sex-specific difference in atrophy rates, atrophying at a greater rate in male versus female participants. Roughly half of the thalamic nuclei showed greater atrophy than all extra-thalamic structures examined (0% to 0.54% per year). These results show the value of white-matter-nulled MPRAGE imaging and THOMAS segmentation for measuring distinct thalamic nuclei and for characterizing the high and heterogeneous atrophy rates of the thalamus and its nuclei across the adult lifespan. Collectively, these methods and results advance our understanding of the role of thalamic substructures in neurocognitive and disease-related changes that occur with aging.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2022.119584

    View details for PubMedID 36007822