Thinning of the Cerebral Cortex in Aging

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Abstract

The thickness of the cerebral cortex was measured in 106 non-demented participants ranging in age from 18 to 93 years. For each participant, multiple acquisitions of structural T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were averaged to yield high-resolution, high-contrast data sets. Cortical thickness was estimated as the distance between the gray/white boundary and the outer cortical surface, resulting in a continuous estimate across the cortical mantle. Global thinning was apparent by middle age. Men and women showed a similar degree of global thinning, and did not differ in mean thickness in the younger or older groups. Age-associated differences were widespread but demonstrated a patchwork of regional atrophy and sparing. Examination of subsets of the data from independent samples produced highly similar age-associated patterns of atrophy, suggesting that the specific anatomic patterns within the maps were reliable. Certain results, including prominent atrophy of prefrontal cortex and relative sparing of temporal and parahippocampal cortex, converged with previous findings. Other results were unexpected, such as the finding of prominent atrophy in frontal cortex near primary motor cortex and calcarine cortex near primary visual cortex. These findings demonstrate that cortical thinning occurs by middle age and spans widespread cortical regions that include primary as well as association cortex.

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