Group-level progressive alterations in brain connectivity patterns revealed by diffusion-tensor brain networks across severity stages in Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a chronically progressive neurodegenerative disease highly correlated to aging. Whether AD originates by targeting a localized brain area and propagates to the rest of the brain across disease-severity progression is a question with an unknown answer. Here, we aim to provide an answer to this question at the group-level by looking at differences in diffusion-tensor brain networks. In particular, making use of data from Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), four different groups were defined (all of them matched by age, sex and education level): G1 (N1 = 36, healthy control subjects, Control), G2 (N2 = 36, early mild cognitive impairment, EMCI), G3 (N3 = 36, late mild cognitive impairment, LMCI) and G4 (N4 = 36, AD). Diffusion-tensor brain networks were compared across three disease stages: stage I (Control vs. EMCI), stage II (Control vs. LMCI) and stage III (Control vs. AD). The group comparison was performed using the multivariate distance matrix regression analysis, a technique that was born in genomics and was recently proposed to handle brain functional networks, but here applied to diffusion-tensor data. The results were threefold: First, no significant differences were found in stage I. Second, significant differences were found in stage II in the connectivity pattern of a subnetwork strongly associated to memory function (including part of the hippocampus, amygdala, entorhinal cortex, fusiform gyrus, inferior and middle temporal gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus and temporal pole). Third, a widespread disconnection across the entire AD brain was found in stage III, affecting more strongly the same memory subnetwork appearing in stage II, plus the other new subnetworks, including the default mode network, medial visual network, frontoparietal regions and striatum. Our results are consistent with a scenario where progressive alterations of connectivity arise as the disease severity increases and provide the brain areas possibly involved in such a degenerative process. Further studies applying the same strategy to longitudinal data are needed to fully confirm this scenario.