White matter variability, cognition, and disorders: a systematic review

Stephanie J. Forkel, Patrick Friedrich, Michel Thiebaut de Schotten, Henrietta Howells
Brain Struct Funct. 2021-11-03; :
DOI: 10.1007/S00429-021-02382-W

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Inter-individual differences can inform treatment procedures and—if accounted for—have the potential to significantly improve patient outcomes. However, when studying brain anatomy, these inter-individual variations are commonly unaccounted for, despite reports of differences in gross anatomical features, cross-sectional, and connectional anatomy. Brain connections are essential to facilitate functional organization and, when severed, cause impairments or complete loss of function. Hence, the study of cerebral white matter may be an ideal compromise to capture inter-individual variability in structure and function. We reviewed the wealth of studies that associate cognitive functions and clinical symptoms with individual tracts using diffusion tractography. Our systematic review indicates that tractography has proven to be a sensitive method in neurology, psychiatry, and healthy populations to identify variability and its functional correlates. However, the literature may be biased, as the most commonly studied tracts are not necessarily those with the highest sensitivity to cognitive functions and pathologies. Additionally, the hemisphere of the studied tract is often unreported, thus neglecting functional laterality and asymmetries. Finally, we demonstrate that tracts, as we define them, are not correlated with one, but multiple cognitive domains or pathologies. While our systematic review identified some methodological caveats, it also suggests that tract–function correlations might still be a promising tool in identifying biomarkers for precision medicine. They can characterize variations in brain anatomy, differences in functional organization, and predicts resilience and recovery in patients.

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