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Longitudinal MRI Study Uncovers Maturational Coupling of Cortical Regions

9 December 2011. In the first study of coordinated anatomical changes across development, a team of researchers headed by Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, reports that functionally connected brain regions mature in a correlated manner. Published in the December 8 issue of Neuron, the study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track cortical thickness (CT) in a large cohort of individuals between the ages of nine and 22.

Since schizophrenia is thought to be a neurodevelopmental disorder that involves dysfunction of multiple brain circuits, understanding the basics of how these circuits mature is an important avenue of research. Unlike previous imaging studies that have examined single cortical regions in isolation, the new study quantifies how the relationships among brain regions change across development. In the largest and longest longitudinal brain maturation study to date, the authors identify several aspects of cortical development that may provide insight into the abnormal developmental trajectory of the brain in schizophrenia, which is marked by thinner than usual CT (see SRF related news story).

Rates of change
Based on 376 scans gathered from 108 study participants who had been imaged every two years, first author Armin Raznahan and colleagues found most cortical areas thinned with age. However, when they looked at how the rates of CT change were coordinated across the brain, they found high correlations among some brain regions but not others. For example, the rates of CT change in higher-order frontal and temporal association cortex exhibited the strongest correlations with the rates of CT change across the rest of the cortex, and formed the most spatially extensive set of correlations with other cortical regions. Lower-order primary visual and sensorimotor cortices, on the other hand, exhibited the weakest and least distributed correlations with the rest of the cortex. Given that both the frontal and temporal lobes are implicated in schizophrenia, these results suggest that a perturbation of connectivity early in life may result in a disruption of coordinated brain development, eventually producing a distributed network of neuroanatomical alterations later in life.

The authors also demonstrated that cortical regions within the default-mode network, a group of brain regions that are active while an individual is awake but not cognitively engaged (Fox et al., 2005), exhibit very high correlations in rate of CT change with each other. Interestingly, the default-mode network exhibits hyperactivity as well as altered connectivity in schizophrenia (see SRF related news story). Additionally, highly correlated rates of CT change were also found within a second set of distributed cortical regions, the task positive network, known to be active during mental tasks (Fox et al., 2005). These data suggest that both functionally and anatomically connected regions exhibit coordinated patterns of development during brain maturation.

On male and female
The researchers also found sexual dimorphism in left frontopolar cortex rates of CT change, which replicates prior data from the same group using a different method of analysis (Raznahan et al., 2010), and in this region, maturational coupling with other brain areas. Female subjects exhibited significantly higher correlations of frontopolar cortical rates of CT change over time with bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex than males did, implicating the frontopolar cortex as a region of interest in the study of sex differences. These prefrontal regions are strongly implicated in cognitive control and decision-making (Badre and Wagner, 2004), and the sex differences identified in their maturation may underlie the sex differences in cognitive control, risk-taking, and motivation that are well documented (Christakou et al., 2009; Steinberg, 2010).

The coordinated patterns of maturation found in this study might depend on the inherent connectivity among the brain regions involved. For example, one plausible explanation for the greater maturational coupling of higher-order regions is that they require more widespread integration with the rest of the cortex in order to carry out the more integrated cognitive processes they underlie. Perhaps not surprisingly, cortical regions that exhibit structural and functional interconnectivity also display highly correlated rates of maturation. Finally, sexually dimorphic rates of maturation in the prefrontal cortex, and in its coupling with other regions, provide interesting clues about the neural circuitry underlying sex differences in cognitive control and adolescent behavior. The integrative approach to exploring cortical maturation utilized in this study will be a useful tool for further investigation of both the normal and perturbed developing brain.—Allison A. Curley.

Reference:
Raznahan A, Lerch JP, Lee N, Greenstein D, Wallace GL, Stockman M, Clasen L, Shaw PW, Giedd JN. Patterns of Coordinated Anatomical Change in Human Cortical Development: A Longitudinal Neuroimaging Study of Maturational Coupling. Neuron. 2011 Dec 8;72(5):873-84. Abstract

Comments on News and Primary Papers


Primary Papers: Patterns of coordinated anatomical change in human cortical development: a longitudinal neuroimaging study of maturational coupling.

Comment by:  Tonya White
Submitted 20 December 2011
Posted 20 December 2011

Maturational Coupling and Neurodevelopmental Trajectories
Raznahan and colleagues (Raznahan et al., 2011) present an interesting article that evaluates maturation coupling of brain regions in a large, longitudinal cohort of typically developing children and adolescents. The authors utilized a correlation-based approach to map distinct brain regions that most closely follow similar growth trajectories, which they coin "maturational coupling." Their results replicate prior findings from their group (Shaw et al., 2008), but are extended to show that the structural brain regions involving the default-mode network also demonstrate similar maturational coupling, thus forming a structure/function relationship within this network. "Regions that wire together, grow together, and fire together" … perhaps?

One weakness of the study, as noted also by the authors, is that the growth trajectories are modeled using linear parameters, when it is well known that neurodevelopmental trajectories are non-linear (Sowell et al., 2004). In addition, with this approach, regions that have greater measurement variability would show less maturational coupling. Nevertheless, defining typical developmental trajectories and maturational coupling of brain regions will be crucial to developing a better understanding of when processes go askew.

References:

1. Raznahan A, Lerch JP, Lee N, Greenstein D, Wallace GL, Stockman M, Clasen L, Shaw PW, Giedd JN. Patterns of coordinated anatomical change in human cortical development: a longitudinal neuroimaging study of maturational coupling. Neuron . 2011 Dec 8 ; 72(5):873-84. Abstract

2. Shaw P, Kabani NJ, Lerch JP, Eckstrand K, Lenroot R, Gogtay N, Greenstein D, Clasen L, Evans A, Rapoport JL, Giedd JN, Wise SP. Neurodevelopmental trajectories of the human cerebral cortex. J Neurosci . 2008 Apr 2 ; 28(14):3586-94. Abstract

3. Sowell ER, Thompson PM, Toga AW. Mapping changes in the human cortex throughout the span of life. Neuroscientist . 2004 Aug 1 ; 10(4):372-92. Abstract

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Related News: Default Mode Network Acts Up in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Vince Calhoun
Submitted 27 January 2009
Posted 27 January 2009

In this work the authors test for differences in the default mode network between healthy controls, patients with schizophrenia, and first degree relatives of the patients. They look at both the degree to which the default mode is modulated by a working memory task and also examine the strength of the functional connectivity. The controls are found to show the most default mode signal decrease during a task, with relatives and patients showing much less. The controls, relatives, and patients show increasing amounts of functional connectivity within the default mode regions. In addition, signal in some of the regions correlated with positive symptoms. The findings in the chronic patients and controls are consistent with our previous work in Garrity et al., 2007, which also showed significantly more functional connectivity in the default mode of schizophrenia patients and significant correlations in certain regions of the default mode with positive symptoms, and in both cases the regions we identified are similar to those shown in the Whitfield-Gabrieli paper. Our work in Kim et al., 2009, was a large multisite study showing significantly fewer default mode signal decreases for the auditory oddball task in chronic schizophrenia patients, again consistent with the Whitfield-Gabrieli paper, but in a different task.

The most interesting contribution of the Whitfield-Gabrieli paper is their inclusion of a first-degree relative group. They found that the first-degree relatives are “in between” the healthy controls and the chronic patients in terms of both the degree to which they modulate the default mode, as well as in their degree of functional connectivity. This has interesting implications in terms of the genetic aspects of the illness and suggests that the default mode may be a potential schizophrenia endophenotype. It will be interesting in future studies to examine both the heritability of the default mode patterns and their genetic underpinnings.

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Related News: Default Mode Network Acts Up in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Edith Pomarol-Clotet
Submitted 28 January 2009
Posted 28 January 2009

The Default Mode Network and Schizophrenia
For a long time functional imaging research has focused on brain activations. However, since 2001 it has been appreciated that there is also a network of brain regions—which includes particularly two midline regions, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex/precuneous—which deactivates during performance of a wide range of cognitive tasks. Why some brain regions should be active at rest but deactivate when tasks have to be performed is unclear, but there is intense speculation that this network is involved in functions such as self-reflection, self-monitoring, and the maintenance of one’s sense of self.

Could the default mode network be implicated in neuropsychiatric disease states? There is evidence that this is the case in autism, and a handful of studies have been also carried out in schizophrenia. Now, Whitfield-Gabrieli and colleagues report that 13 schizophrenic patients in the early phase of illness showed a failure to deactivate the anterior medial prefrontal node of the default mode network when they performed a working memory task. They also find that failure to deactivate is seen to a lesser but still significant extent in unaffected first-degree relatives of the schizophrenic patients, and that the degree of failure to deactivate is associated with both the severity of positive and negative symptoms in the patients.

Importantly, the findings of Whitfield-Gabrieli and colleagues are closely similar to those of another recent study by our group (Pomarol-Clotet et al., 2008), which found failure to deactivate in the medial prefrontal cortex node of the default mode network in 32 chronic schizophrenic patients. This is a striking convergence in the field of functional imaging studies of schizophrenia, which has previously been marked by diverse and often conflicting findings. Additionally, in both studies the magnitude of the difference between patients and controls was large and visually striking. These findings suggest that we may be dealing with an important abnormality which could be close to the disease process in schizophrenia.

If so, what does dysfunction in the default mode network mean? On the one hand, failure to deactivate part of a network whose activity normally decreases when attention has to be turned to performance of external tasks might be expected to interfere with normal cognitive operations. Consistent with this, cognitive impairment is nowadays accepted as being an important, or even a “core” feature of schizophrenia. Perhaps more importantly, could it be that default mode network dysfunction can help us understand the symptoms of schizophrenia? As Whitfield-Gabrieli and colleagues note, if the default mode network is involved in self-reflection, self-monitoring, and maintenance of one’s sense of self, then failure of deactivation might lead to an exaggerated focus on one’s own thoughts and feelings, excessive self-reference, and/or a breakdown in the boundary between the inner self and the external world. The default mode network may thus have the potential to account for two major realms of clinical abnormality in schizophrenia—its symptoms and the cognitive impairment that is frequently associated with them.

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Related News: Default Mode Network Acts Up in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Samantha BroydEdmund Sonuga-Barke
Submitted 4 February 2009
Posted 4 February 2009

The surge in scientific interest in patterns of connectivity and activation of resting-state brain function and the default-mode network has recently extended to default-mode brain dysfunction in mental disorders (for a review, please see Broyd et al., 2008). Whitfield-Gabrieli et al. examine resting-state and (working-memory) task-related brain activity in 13 patients with early-phase schizophrenia, 13 unaffected first-degree relatives, and 13 healthy control participants. These authors report hyperconnectivity in the default-mode network in patients and relatives during rest, and note that this enhanced connectivity was correlated with psychopathology. Further, patients and relatives exhibited reduced task-related suppression (hyperactivation) of the medial prefrontal region of the default-mode network relative to the control group, even after controlling for task performance.

The findings from the Whitfield-Gabrieli paper are in accordance with those from a number of other research groups investigating possible default-mode network dysfunction in schizophrenia. For example, in a similar working memory task Pomarol-Clotet and colleagues (2008) have also shown reduced task-related suppression of medial frontal nodes of the default-mode network in 32 patients with chronic schizophrenia. However, the findings are at odds with research reporting widespread reductions in functional connectivity in the resting brain of this clinical group (e.g., Bluhm et al., 2007; Liang et al., 2006). As noted by Whitfield-Gabrieli et al., increased connectivity and reduced task-related suppression of default-mode activity may redirect attentional focus from task-related events to introspective and self-referential thought processes. The reduced anti-correlation between the task-positive and default-mode network in patients further supports and helps biologically ground suggestions of the possibility of an overzealous focus on internal thought. Perhaps even more interestingly, the study by Whitfield-Gabrieli and colleagues suggests that aberrant patterns of activation and connectivity in the default-mode network, and in particular the medial frontal region of this network, may be associated with genetic risk for schizophrenia. Although there are some inconsistencies in the literature regarding the role of the default-mode network in schizophrenia, the work of Whitfield-Gabrieli and others suggests that this network may well contribute to the pathophysiology of this disorder and is relevant to contemporary models of schizophrenia. Indeed, the recent flurry in empirical research investigating the clinical relevance of this network to mental disorder has highlighted a number of possible putative mechanisms that might link the default-mode network to disorder. Firstly, effective transitioning from the resting-state to task-related activity appears to be particularly vulnerable to dysfunction in mental disorders and may be characterized by deficits in attentional control. Sonuga-Barke and Castellanos (2007) have suggested that interference arising from a reduction in the task-related deactivation of the default-mode network may underlie the disruption of attentional control. The default-mode interference hypothesis proposes that spontaneous low-frequency activity in the default-mode network, normally attenuated during goal-directed tasks, can intrude on task-specific activity and create cyclical lapses in attention resulting in increased variability and a decline in task performance (Sonuga-Barke and Castellanos, 2007). Sonuga-Barke and Castellanos (2007) suggest that the efficacious transition from rest to task and the maintenance of task-specific activity may be moderated by trait factors such as disorder. Secondly, the degree of functional connectivity in the default-mode network may highlight problems of reduced connectivity, or excess functional connectivity (e.g., schizophrenia), which suggests a zealous focus on self-referential processing and introspective thought. Thirdly, the strength of the anti-correlation between the default-mode and task-positive networks may also indicate a clinical susceptibility to introspective or extrospective orienting. Finally, future research should continue to examine the etiology of the default-mode network in schizophrenia.

References:

Bluhm, R.L., Miller, J., Lanius, R.A., Osuch, E.A., Boksman, K., Neufeld, R.W.J., Théberge, J., Schaefer, B., & Williamson, P. (2007). Spontaneous low-frequency fluctuations in the BOLD signal in schizophrenic patients: Anomalies in the default network. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 33, 1004-1012. Abstract

Broyd, S.J., Demanuele, D., Debener, S., Helps, S.K., James, C.J., & Sonuga-Barke, E.J.S. (in press). Default-mode brain dysfunction in mental disorders: a systematic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008 Sep 9. Abstract

Liang, M., Zhou, Y., Jiang, T., Liu, Z., Tian, L., Liu, H., and Hao, Y. (2006). Widespread functional disconnectivity in schizophrenia with resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging. NeuroReport, 17, 209-213. Abstract

Pomarol-Clotet, E., Salvador, R., Sarro, S., Gomar, J., Vila, F., Martinez, A., Guerrero, A.,Ortiz-Gil, J., Sans-Sansa, B., Capdevila, A., Cebemanos, J.M., McKenna, P.J., 2008. Failure to deactivate in the prefrontal cortex in schizophrenia: dysfunction of the default-mode network? Psychological Medicine, 38, 1185–1193. Abstract

Sonuga-Barke, E.J.S., Castellanos, F.X., 2007. Spontaneous attentional fluctuations in impaired states and pathological conditions: a neurobiological hypothesis. Neuroscience Biobehavioural Reviews, 31, 977–986. Abstract

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Related News: Default Mode Network Acts Up in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Yuan ZhouTianzi JiangZhening Liu
Submitted 18 February 2009
Posted 22 February 2009
  I recommend the Primary Papers

The consistent findings on default-mode network in human brain have attracted the researcher’s attention to the task-independent activity. The component regions of the default-mode network, especially medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus, are related to self-reflective activities and attention. Both of these functions are observed to be impaired in schizophrenia. And thus the default-mode network has also attracted more and more attention in the schizophrenia research community. The study of Whitfield-Gabrieli et al. shows a further step along this research streamline.

The authors found hyperactivity (reduced task suppression) and hyperconnectivity of the default network in schizophrenia, and found that hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity of the default network are associated with poor work memory performance and greater psychopathology in schizophrenia. And they found less anticorrelation between the medial prefrontal cortex and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region showing increased task-related activity in schizophrenia, whether during rest or task. Furthermore, the hyperactivity in medial prefrontal cortex is negatively related to the hyperconnectivity of the default network in schizophrenia.

There are two main contributions in this work. First, they found significant correlation between the abnormalities in the default mode network and impaired cognitive performance and psychopathology in schizophrenia. Thus they propose a new explanation for the impaired working memory and attention in schizophrenia, and propose a possibility that schizophrenic symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations, may be due to the blurred boundary between internal thoughts and external perceptions. Secondly, they recruited the first-degree relatives of these patients in this study, and found that these healthy relatives showed abnormalities in the default network similar to that of patients but to a lesser extent. This is the first study investigating the default mode network of relatives of individuals with schizophrenia. This finding indicates that the dysfunction in the default mode network is associated with genetic risk for schizophrenia.

The findings in schizophrenia are consistent with our previous work (Zhou et al., 2007), in which we also found hyperconnectivity of the default mode network during rest. Considering the differences in ethnicity of participants (Chinese in our study) and methodology, the consistency in the hyperconnectivity of the default mode network in schizophrenia is exciting, which supports the possibility that abnormality in the default-mode network may be a potential imaging biomarker to assist diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, this needs to be validated in future studies with a large sample size, due to other contradictory findings, for example, the reduced resting-state functional connectivities associated with the posterior cingulate cortex in chronic, medicated schizophrenic patients (Bluhm et al., 2007). In addition, further studies should focus on default-mode function in different clinical subtypes, as schizophrenia is a complicated disorder. Finally, it should be noticed that the hyperconnectivity of the default-mode network is not exclusively contradictory with hyperconnectivity in other regions, as we previously found (Liang et al., 2006). It is possible that hyperconnectivity and hyperconnectivity coexist in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia and together lead to the complicated symptoms and cognitive deficits.

References:

Bluhm, R. L., Miller, J., Lanius, R. A., Osuch, E. A., Boksman, K., Neufeld, R. W., et al., 2007. Spontaneous low-frequency fluctuations in the BOLD signal in schizophrenic patients: anomalies in the default network. Schizophr Bull 33, 1004-1012. Abstract

Liang, M., Zhou, Y., Jiang, T., Liu, Z., Tian, L., Liu, H., et al., 2006. Widespread functional disconnectivity in schizophrenia with resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging. Neuroreport 17, 209-213. Abstract

Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Thermenos, H. W., Milanovic, S., Tsuang, M. T., Faraone, S. V., McCarley, R. W., et al., 2009. Hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity of the default network in schizophrenia and in first-degree relatives of persons with schizophrenia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 106, 1279-1284. Abstract

Zhou, Y., Liang, M., Tian, L., Wang, K., Hao, Y., Liu, H., et al., 2007. Functional disintegration in paranoid schizophrenia using resting-state fMRI. Schizophr Res 97, 194-205. Abstract

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Related News: Interpret With Care: Cortical Thinning in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Cynthia Shannon Weickert, SRF Advisor
Submitted 4 January 2012
Posted 4 January 2012

Plump Enough
Thanks for your thought-provoking review of structural MRI changes in schizophrenia. I had a couple of quick comments.

You make the statement that, "Though cortical thickness itself is below the resolution of typical MRI, image analysis algorithms can now infer thickness across the entire cortical sheet as it winds its way throughout the brain." I thought sMRI gathers information for about 2 mm cubed or so. So maybe the point to make is that cortex thickness is not below the resolution, but the putative change in thickness is below the resolution. It would be interesting to know if the putative change in cortical thickness in schizophrenia could be better viewed with 3T or 7T scanners.

Also, I wonder how to interpret decreases in volume over five years that seem to be as much as 5 percent in some areas. How long could this continue to be progressive at this rate, and what would be the final cortical volume expected in the final decade of life? For example, if the DLPFC BA46 is about 3,500 microns thick, then a 5 percent loss/five years over 20 years would leave you with about 2,850 microns, and that would be about a 20 percent decrease in thickness. While postmortem studies may be limited, as Karoly points out, certainly we know that the frontal cortex is still "plump enough" to define cyto-architecturally, and to examine at the histological level. We also consider that there is about a 10 percent loss in cortical thickness in people with schizophrenia. Certainly, the cortex does not degenerate completely as would be expected with relentless progression of loss and accumulated deterioration of cortical grey matter over time.

Thus, this is an interesting issue, but many questions remain. Is there a lot of case-to-case variability that underlies these averages such that some cases lose more cortical volume and some do not lose any at all? Could it be that, while there is cortical volume loss, there are some patients in whom this loss slows or even reverses naturally over the course of the disease? What is the physical substrate of such cortical volume loss in people with schizophrenia? Can we prevent cortical volume loss over time, and would this be beneficial to patient outcomes?

View all comments by Cynthia Shannon Weickert