Investigating White Matter Lesion Load, Intrinsic Functional Connectivity, and Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults
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Changes to the while matter of the brain disrupt neural communication between spatially distributed brain regions and are associated with cognitive changes in later life. While approximately 95% of older adults experience these brain changes, not everyone who has significant white matter damage displays cognitive impairment. Few studies have investigated the association between white matter changes and cognition in the context of functional brain network integrity. This study used a data-driven, multivariate analytical model to investigate intrinsic functional connectivity patterns associated with individual variability in white matter lesion load as related to fluid and crystallized intelligence in a sample of healthy older adults (n = 84). Several primary findings were noted. First, a reliable pattern emerged associating whole-brain resting-state functional connectivity with individual variability in measures of white matter lesion load, as indexed by total white matter lesion volume and number of lesions. Secondly, white matter lesion load was associated with increased network disintegration and dedifferentiation. Specifically, lower white matter lesion load was associated with greater within- versus between-network connectivity. Higher white matter lesion load was associated with greater between-network connectivity compared to within. These associations between intrinsic functional connectivity and white matter lesion load were not reliably associated with crystallized and fluid intelligence performance. These results suggest that changes to the white matter of the brain in typically aging older adults are characterized by increased functional brain network dedifferentiation. The findings highlight the role of white matter lesion load in altering the functional network architecture of the brain.