The retrogenesis hypothesis postulates that late-myelinated white matter fibers are most vulnerable to age- and disease-related degeneration, which in turn mediate cognitive decline. While recent evidence supports this hypothesis in the context of Alzheimer’s disease, it has not been tested systematically in normal cognitive aging.
In the current study, we examined the retrogenesis hypothesis in a group (n=282) of cognitively normal individuals ranging in age from 7 to 87 years from the Brain Resource International Database. Participants were evaluated with a comprehensive neuropsychological battery and were imaged with diffusion tensor imaging. Fractional anisotropy (FA), radial diffusivity (RD), and axial diffusivity (DA), measures of white matter coherence, were computed in two prototypical early-myelinated fiber tracts (posterior limb of the internal capsule, cerebral peduncles) and two prototypical late-myelinated fiber tracts (superior longitudinal fasciculus, inferior longitudinal fasciculus) chosen to parallel previous studies; mean summary values were also computed for other early- and late-myelinated fiber tracts. We examined age-associated differences in FA, RD, and DA in the developmental trajectory (ages 7 to 30 years) and degenerative trajectory (ages 31 to 87 years), and tested whether the measures of white matter coherence mediated age-related cognitive decline in the older group.
FA and DA values were greater for early-myelinated fibers than for late-myelinated fibers, and RD values were lower for early-myelinated than late-myelinated fibers. There were age-associated differences in FA, RD, and DA across early- and late-myelinated fiber tracts in the younger group, but the magnitude of differences did not vary as a function of early or late myelinating status. FA and RD in most fiber tracts showed reliable age-associated differences in the older age group, but the magnitudes were greatest for the late-myelinated tract summary measure, inferior longitudinal fasciculus (late fiber tract), and cerebral peduncles (early fiber tract). Finally, FA in the inferior longitudinal fasciculus and cerebral peduncles and RD in the cerebral peduncles mediated age-associated differences in an executive functioning factor.
Taken together, the findings highlight the importance of white matter coherence in cognitive aging and provide some, but not complete, support for the white matter retrogenesis hypothesis in normal cognitive aging.