This study examined the relative sensitivity and relationship between multiple white matter indices in Friedreich ataxia to more richly characterize disease expression and infer possible mechanisms underlying the observed white matter abnormalities. Diffusion-tensor, magnetization transfer, and T1-weighted structural images were acquired from 31 individuals with Friedreich ataxia and 36 controls. Six white matter indices were extracted: fractional anisotropy, diffusivity (mean, axial, radial), magnetization transfer ratio (microstructure), and volume (macrostructure). For each index, whole-brain voxel-wise between-group comparisons and correlations with disease severity, onset age, and gene triplet-repeat length were undertaken. Correlations between pairs of indices were assessed in the Friedreich ataxia cohort. Spatial similarities in the voxel-level pattern of between-group differences across the indices were also assessed. Microstructural abnormalities were maximal in cerebellar and brainstem regions, but evident throughout the brain, while macroscopic abnormalities were restricted to the brainstem. Poorer microstructure and reduced macrostructural volume correlated with greater disease severity and earlier onset, particularly in peri-dentate nuclei and brainstem regions. Microstructural and macrostructural abnormalities were largely independent. Reduced fractional anisotropy was most strongly associated with axial diffusivity in cerebral tracts, and magnetization transfer in cerebellar tracts. Multiple mechanisms likely underpin white matter abnormalities in Friedreich ataxia, with differential impacts in cerebellar and cerebral pathways.
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