The thalamus in Parkinson's disease: a multimodal investigation of thalamic involvement in cognitive impairment
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Parkinson’s disease patients present with the highest risk of dementia development. The thalamus, integral to several functions and behaviours is involved in the pathophysiology of Parkinson’s disease. The aim of this thesis was to determine if anatomical abnormalities in the thalamus are associated with the development of dementia in Parkinson’s disease. We examined the thalamus using macro and microstructural techniques and the white matter pathways that connect the thalamus with areas of the surrounding cortex using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) based tractography. T1-weighted magnetic resonance and DT images were collected in 56 Parkinson’s disease patients with no cognitive impairment, 19 patients with mild cognitive impairment, 17 patients with dementia and 25 healthy individuals who acted as control subjects. An established automated segmentation procedure (FIRST FSL) was used to delineate the thalamus and a modified k-means clustering algorithm applied to segment the thalamus into clusters assumed to represent thalamic nuclei. Fibre tracts were determined using DTI probabilistic tracking methods available in FIRST. Microstructural integrity was quantified by fractional anisotropy and mean diffusivity (MD) DTI measures. Results show that microstructural measures of thalamic integrity are more sensitive to cognitive dysfunction in PD than macrostructural measures. For the first time we showed a progressive worsening of cellular integrity (MD) in the groups who had greater levels of cognitive dysfunction. Thalamic degeneration was regionally specific and most advanced in the limbic thalamic nuclei which influenced executive function and attention, areas of cognition that are known to be affected in the earliest stages of PD. The integrity of the fibre tracts corresponding to these thalamic regions was also compromised. Degeneration of fibre tracts was most evident in the dementia group, indicating that they may be more protected against Lewy pathology than the nuclei of the thalamus. Our findings confirm previous histological, animal and lesion studies and provide a reliable estimate of cortical degeneration in PD that can be applied non-invasively and in vivo. A longitudinal study is needed to monitor the progression of cognitive decline in PD but we have provided the basis for further investigation into the predictive validity of thalamic degeneration for cognitive dysfunction. In the future, the microstructural changes of the thalamus could be used as biomarkers for the identification of individuals with a higher risk for dementia development and for the longitudinal monitoring of any interventions into cognitive decline.