Aims: Hypertension is one of the main risk factor for dementia. The subtle damage provoked by chronic high blood pressure in the brain is usually evidenced by conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in terms of white matter (WM) hyperintensities or cerebral atrophy. However, it is clear that by the time brain damage is visible, it may be too late hampering neurodegeneration. Aim of this study was to characterize a signature of early brain damage induced by hypertension, before the neurodegenerative injury manifests.
Methods and results: This work was conducted on hypertensive and normotensive subjects with no sign of structural damage at conventional neuroimaging and no diagnosis of dementia revealed by neuropsychological assessment. All individuals underwent cardiological clinical examination in order to define the hypertensive status and the related target organ damage. Additionally, patients were subjected to DTI-MRI scan to identify microstructural damage of WM by probabilistic fiber-tracking. To gain insights in the neurocognitive profile of patients a specific battery of tests was administered. As primary outcome of the study we aimed at finding any specific signature of fiber-tracts alterations in hypertensive patients, associated with an impairment of the related cognitive functions. Hypertensive patients showed significant alterations in three specific WM fiber-tracts: the anterior thalamic radiation, the superior longitudinal fasciculus and the forceps minor. Hypertensive patients also scored significantly worse in the cognitive domains ascribable to brain regions connected through those WM fiber-tracts, showing decreased performances in executive functions, processing speed, memory, and paired associative learning tasks.
Conclusions: Overall, WM fiber-tracking on MRI evidenced an early signature of damage in hypertensive patients when otherwise undetectable by conventional neuroimaging. In perspective, this approach could allow identifying those patients that are in initial stages of brain damage and could benefit of therapies aimed at limiting the transition to dementia and neurodegeneration.