Individuals who participated in response efforts at the World Trade Center (WTC) following 9/11/2001 are experiencing elevated incidence of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) at midlife.
We hypothesized that white matter connectivity measured using diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI) would be restructured in WTC responders with MCI versus cognitively unimpaired responders.
Twenty responders (mean age 56; 10 MCI/10 unimpaired) recruited from an epidemiological study were characterized using NIA-AA criteria alongside controls matched on demographics (age/sex/occupation/race/education). Axial DSI was acquired on a 3T Siemen’s Biograph mMR scanner (12-channel head coil) using a multi-band diffusion sequence. Connectometry examined whole-brain tract-level differences in white matter integrity. Fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), and quantified anisotropy were extracted for region of interest (ROI) analyses using the Desikan-Killiany atlas.
Connectometry identified both increased and decreased connectivity within regions of the brains of responders with MCI identified in the corticothalamic pathway and cortico-striatal pathway that survived adjustment for multiple comparisons. MCI was also associated with higher FA values in five ROIs including in the rostral anterior cingulate; lower MD values in four ROIs including the left rostral anterior cingulate; and higher MD values in the right inferior circular insula. Analyses by cognitive domain revealed nominal associations in domains of response speed, verbal learning, verbal retention, and visuospatial learning.
WTC responders with MCI at midlife showed early signs of neurodegeneration characterized by both increased and decreased white matter diffusivity in regions commonly affected by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.