Executive deficits, not processing speed relates to abnormalities in distinct prefrontal tracts in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Lewis D Pettit, Mark E Bastin, Colin Smith, Thomas H Bak, Thomas H Gillingwater, Sharon Abrahams
Brain 2013, 136 (Pt 11): 3290-304
Cognitive impairment in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is characterized by deficits on tests of executive function; however, the contribution of abnormal processing speed is unknown. Methods are confounded by tasks that depend on motor speed in patients with physical disability. Structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have revealed multi-system cerebral involvement, with evidence of reduced white matter volume and integrity in predominant frontotemporal regions. The current study has two aims. First, to investigate whether cognitive impairments in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis are due to executive dysfunction or slowed processing speed using methodology that accommodates motor disability. This is achieved using a dual-task paradigm and tasks that manipulate stimulus presentation times and do not rely on response motor speed. Second, to identify relationships between specific cognitive impairments and the integrity of distinct white matter tracts. Thirty patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and 30 age- and education-matched control subjects were administered an experimental dual-task procedure that combined a visual inspection time task and digit recall. In addition, measures of executive function (including letter fluency) and processing speed (visual inspection time and rapid serial letter identification) were administered. Integrity of white matter tracts was determined using region of interest analyses of diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging data. Patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis did not show impairments on tests of processing speed, but executive deficits were revealed once visual inspection time was combined with digit recall (dual-task) and in letter fluency. In addition to the corticospinal tracts, significant differences in fractional anisotropy and mean diffusivity were found between groups in a number of prefrontal and temporal white matter tracts including the anterior cingulate, anterior thalamic radiation, uncinate fasciculus and hippocampal portion of the cingulum bundles. Significant differences also emerged in the anterior corona radiata as well as in white matter underlying the superior, medial and inferior frontal gyri and the temporal gyri. Dual-task performance significantly correlated with fractional anisotropy measures in the middle frontal gyrus white matter and anterior corona radiata. Letter fluency indices significantly correlated with fractional anisotropy measures of the inferior frontal gyrus white matter and corpus callosum in addition to the corticospinal tracts and mean diffusivity measures in the white matter of the superior frontal gyrus. The current study demonstrates that cognitive impairment in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is not due to generic slowing of processing speed. Moreover, different executive deficits are related to distinct prefrontal tract involvement in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with dual-task impairment associating with dorsolateral prefrontal dysfunction and letter fluency showing greater dependence on inferolateral prefrontal dysfunction.

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