Diffusion tensor imaging of white matter tract evolution over the lifespan

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Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) has been used widely to show structural brain changes during both development and aging. Lifespan studies are valuable because they connect these two processes, yet few DTI studies have been conducted that include both children and elderly subjects. This study used DTI tractography to investigate 12 major white matter connections in 403 healthy subjects aged 5–83 years. Poisson fits were used to model changes of fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) across the age span, and were highly significant for all tracts. FA increased during childhood and adolescence, reached a peak between 20 and 42 years of age, and then decreased. MD showed an opposite trend, decreasing first, reaching a minimum at 18–41 years, and then increasing later in life. These trajectories demonstrate rates and timing of development and degradation that vary regionally in the brain. The corpus callosum and fornix showed early reversals of development trends, while frontal–temporal connections (cingulum, uncinate, superior longitudinal) showed more prolonged maturation and delayed declines. FA changes were driven by perpendicular diffusivity, suggesting changes of myelination and/or axonal density. Tract volume changed significantly with age for most tracts, but did not greatly influence the FA and MD trajectories. This study demonstrates clear age-related microstructural changes throughout the brain white matter, and provides normative data that will be useful for studying white matter development in a variety of diseases and abnormal conditions.


□ We model diffusion changes across the lifespan (5–83 years) using tractography. □ Fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) show non-linear trajectories. □ FA peaks occurred between 20–42 years and MD minima occurred between 18–43 years. □ The fornix and callosal tracts had the earliest trend reversals. □ The frontal–temporal connections had the most prolonged development.

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