This study assessed longitudinal changes in brain activation, associated with working memory performance (N-back task), and grey matter volume over 24 months in 21 individuals with Friedreich Ataxia (FRDA) and 28 healthy controls using functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging, respectively. Participants also completed a neurocognitive battery assessing working memory (digit span), executive function (Stroop, Haylings), and set-shifting (Trail Making Test). Individuals with FRDA displayed significantly increased brain activation over 24 months in ventral attention brain regions, including bilateral insula and inferior frontal gyrus (pars triangularis and pars opercularis), compared with controls, but there was no difference in working memory (N-back) performance between groups. Moreover, there were no significant differences in grey matter volume changes between groups. Significant correlations between brain activations and both clinical severity and age at disease onset were observed in FRDA individuals only at 24 months. There was significant longitudinal decline in Trail Making Test (TMT) difference score (B-A) in individuals with FRDA, compared with controls. These findings provide the first evidence of increased longitudinal activation over time in the cerebral cortex in FRDA, compared with controls, despite comparable working memory performance. This finding represents a possible compensatory response in the ventral attention network to help sustain working memory performance in individuals with FRDA.
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