Brain White Matter Tract Integrity and Cognitive Abilities in Community-Dwelling Older People: The Lothian Birth Cohort, 1936

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Abstract

Objective: The present study investigates associations between brain white matter tract integrity and cognitive abilities in community-dwelling older people (N = 655). We explored two potential confounds of white matter tract−cognition associations in later life: (a) whether the associations between tracts and specific cognitive abilities are accounted for by general cognitive ability (g); and (b) how the presence of atrophy and white matter lesions affect these associations. Method: Tract integrity was determined using quantitative diffusion magnetic resonance imaging tractography (tract-averaged fractional anisotropy [FA]). Using confirmatory factor analysis, we compared first-order and bifactor models to investigate whether specific tract-ability associations were accounted for by g. Results: Significant associations were found between g and FA in bilateral anterior thalamic radiations (r range: .16−.18, p < .01), uncinate (r range: .19−.26, p < .001), arcuate fasciculi (r range: .11−.12, p < .05), and the splenium of corpus callosum (r = .14, p < .01). After controlling for g within the bifactor model, some significant specific cognitive domain associations remained. Results also suggest that the primary effects of controlling for whole brain integrity were on g associations, not specific abilities. Conclusion: Results suggest that g accounts for most of, but not all, the tract−cognition associations in the current data. When controlling for age-related overall brain structural changes, only minor attenuations of the tract−cognition associations were found, and these were primarily with g. In totality, the results highlight the importance of controlling for g when investigating associations between specific cognitive abilities and neuropsychology variables.

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