Cerebral white matter free water: A sensitive biomarker of cognition and function

Pauline Maillard, Evan Fletcher, Baljeet Singh, Oliver Martinez, David K. Johnson, John M. Olichney, Sarah T. Farias, Charles DeCarli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE: To determine whether free water (FW) content, initially developed to correct metrics derived from diffusion tensor imaging and recently found to be strongly associated with vascular risk factors, may constitute a sensitive biomarker of white matter (WM) microstructural differences associated with cognitive performance but remains unknown. METHODS: Five hundred thirty-six cognitively diverse individuals, aged 77 ± 8 years, received yearly comprehensive clinical evaluations and a baseline MRI examination of whom 224 underwent follow-up MRI. WM microstructural measures, including FW, fractional anisotropy, and mean diffusivity corrected for FW and WM hyperintensity burden were computed within WM voxels of each individual. Baseline and change in MRI metrics were then used as independent variables to explain baseline and change in episodic memory (EM), executive function (EF), and Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) scores using linear, logistic, and Cox proportional-hazards regressions. RESULTS: Higher baseline FW and WM hyperintensity were associated with lower baseline EM and EF, higher baseline CDR, accelerated EF and EM decline, and higher probability to transition to a more severe CDR stage (p values <0.01). Annual change in FW was also found to be associated with concomitant change in cognitive and functional performance (p values <0.01). CONCLUSIONS: This study finds cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between FW content and trajectory of cognitive and functional performance in a large sample of cognitively diverse individuals. It supports the need to investigate the pathophysiologic process that manifests increased FW, potentially leading to more severe WM territory injury and promoting cognitive and functional decline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e2221-e2231
Issue number19
StatePublished - May 7 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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