Assessing the effects of age on long white matter tracts using diffusion tensor tractography

Simon W. Davis, Nancy A. Dennis, Norbou G. Buchler, Leonard E. White, David J. Madden, Roberto Cabeza

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

368 Scopus citations


Aging is associated with significant white matter deterioration and this deterioration is assumed to be at least partly a consequence of myelin degeneration. The present study investigated specific predictions of the myelodegeneration hypothesis using diffusion tensor tractography. This technique has several advantages over other methods of assessing white matter architecture, including the possibility of isolating individual white matter tracts and measuring effects along the whole extent of each tract. The study yielded three main findings. First, age-related white matter deficits increased gradually from posterior to anterior segments within specific fiber tracts traversing frontal and parietal, but not temporal cortex. This pattern inverts the sequence of myelination during childhood and early development observed in previous studies and lends support to a "last-in-first-out" theory of the white matter health across the lifespan. Second, both the effects of aging on white matter and their impact on cognitive performance were stronger for radial diffusivity (RD) than for axial diffusivity (AD). Given that RD has previously been shown to be more sensitive to myelin integrity than AD, this second finding is also consistent with the myelodegeneration hypothesis. Finally, the effects of aging on select white matter tracts were associated with age difference in specific cognitive functions. Specifically, FA in anterior tracts was shown to be primarily associated with executive tasks and FA in posterior tracts mainly associated with visual memory tasks. Furthermore, these correlations were mirrored in RD, but not AD, suggesting that RD is more sensitive to age-related changes in cognition. Taken together, the results help to clarify how age-related white matter decline impairs cognitive performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)530-541
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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