Structural changes in the somatosensory system correlate with tic severity in Gilles de la Tourette syndrome

Götz Thomalla, Hartwig R Siebner, Melanie Jonas, Tobias Bäumer, Katja Biermann-Ruben, Friedhelm Hummel, Christian Gerloff, Kirsten Müller-Vahl, Alfons Schnitzler, Michael Orth, Alexander Münchau
Brain 2009, 132: 765-77
Gilles de la Tourette syndrome (GTS) is a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by multiple motor and vocal tics. Previous structural MRI studies have identified regional abnormalities in grey matter, especially in the basal ganglia. These findings are consistent with the assumption of alterations in cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical circuits and dopaminergic neurotransmission playing a major role in the pathophysiology of GTS. Additionally, recent imaging studies suggested an involvement of sensory-motor cortices in the pathophysiology of GTS. However, little is known about the role of white matter changes in GTS. In this study, we aimed to examine whether GTS is associated with abnormalities in white matter microstructure and whether these changes are correlated with tic severity. In a morphometric study based on diffusion tensor MRI of the whole brain, we compared brain tissue diffusion characteristics between 15 unmedicated adults with GTS without psychiatric co-morbidity and 15 healthy age- and sex-matched controls. We performed voxel-based morphometry (VBM) of regional fractional anisotropy (FA) values to identify regional differences in white matter microstructure between the groups. We also tested for a linear relationship between regional FA values and clinical scores of tic severity. Probabilistic fibre tracking was applied to characterize anatomical connectivity of those areas showing differences in regional FA. Compared with healthy controls, GTS patients showed bilateral FA increases in white matter underlying the post- and precentral gyrus, below the left supplementary motor area, and in the right ventro-postero-lateral part of the thalamus. The peak increase in FA was located below the left postcentral gyrus. Probabilistic tractography identified transcallosal and ipsilateral cerebello-thalamo-cortical pathways of the somatosensory system passing through this subcortical region. In patients, regional FA in this region showed an inverse linear relationship with tic severity. These findings demonstrate, for the first time, structural alterations in somatosensory pathways in GTS. Changes of water diffusion characteristics point towards reduced branching in somatosensory pathways in GTS patients. The negative correlation between higher regional FA values and fewer tics suggests that these alterations of white matter microstructure represent adaptive reorganization of somatosensory processing in GTS.

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