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Longitudinal structural brain changes in Friedreich ataxia depend on disease severity: the IMAGE-FRDA study

Disease progression in Friedreich ataxia remains poorly understood. This study aimed to characterise longitudinal change in brain structure using a multi-modal approach across cerebral and cerebellar grey and white matter. T1-weighted, diffusion-tensor, and magnetisation transfer magnetic resonance images were obtained from 28 individuals with Friedreich ataxia and 29 age- and gender-matched controls at two time-points, 2 years apart. Region-of-interest and exploratory between-group comparisons assessed changes in brain macrostructure (cerebellar lobule volume, cerebral cortical thickness/gyrification, brain white matter volume) and microstructure (white matter fractional anisotropy, mean/axial/radial diffusivity, magnetisation transfer ratio). Rates of change were correlated against change in neurological severity, Time 1 severity, and onset age. Individuals with Friedreich ataxia had a greater rate of white matter volume loss than controls in the superior cerebellar peduncles and right peri-thalamic/posterior cerebral regions, and greater reduction in left primary motor cortex gyrification. Greater cerebellar/brainstem white matter volume loss and right dorsal premotor gyrification loss was observed amongst individuals with less severe neurological symptoms at Time 1. Conversely, cerebral atrophy and changes in axial diffusivity were observed in individuals with more severe Time 1 symptoms. Progression in radial diffusivity was more pronounced amongst individuals with earlier disease onset. Greater right ventral premotor gyrification loss correlated with greater neurological progression. In conclusion, heterogeneity in Friedreich ataxia progression is observed at the neurobiological level, with evidence of earlier cerebellar and later cerebral degeneration.

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