Evidence for cortical "disconnection" as a mechanism of age-related cognitive decline

Mike O'Sullivan, D. K. Jones, P. E. Summers, R. G. Morris, S. C R Williams, H. S. Markus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Normal aging is accompanied by a decline of cognitive abilities, and executive skills may be affected selectively, but the underlying mechanisms remain obscure and preventive strategies are lacking. It has been suggested that cortical "disconnection" due to the loss of white matter fibers may play an important role. But, to date, there has been no direct demonstration of structural disconnection in humans in vivo. Methods: The authors used diffusion tensor MRI to look for evidence of ultrastructural changes in cerebral white matter in a group of 20 elderly volunteers with normal conventional MRI scans, and a group of 10 younger controls. The older group also underwent neuropsychological assessment. Results: Diffusional anisotropy, a marker of white matter tract integrity, was reduced in the white matter of older subjects and fell linearly with increasing age in the older group. Mean diffusivity was higher in the older group and increased with age. These changes were maximal in anterior white matter. In the older group, anterior mean diffusivity correlated with executive function assessed by the Trail Making Test. Conclusions: These findings provide direct evidence that white matter tract disruption occurs in normal aging and would be consistent with the cortical disconnection hypothesis of age-related cognitive decline. Maximal changes in anterior white matter provide a plausible structural basis for selective loss of executive functions. In addition to providing new information about the biological basis of cognitive abilities, diffusion tensor MRI may be a sensitive tool for assessing interventions aimed at preventing cognitive decline.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)632-638
Number of pages7
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 28 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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