Normal ageing is associated with characteristic changes in brain microstructure. Although in vivo neuroimaging captures spatial and temporal patterns of age-related changes of anatomy at the macroscopic scale, our knowledge of the underlying (patho)physiological processes at cellular and molecular levels is still limited. The aim of this study is to explore brain tissue properties in normal ageing using quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) alongside conventional morphological assessment. Using a whole-brain approach in a cohort of 26 adults, aged 18–85 years, we performed voxel-based morphometric (VBM) analysis and voxel-based quantification (VBQ) of diffusion tensor, magnetization transfer (MT), R1, and R2* relaxation parameters. We found age-related reductions in cortical and subcortical grey matter volume paralleled by changes in fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), MT and R2*. The latter were regionally specific depending on their differential sensitivity to microscopic tissue properties. VBQ of white matter revealed distinct anatomical patterns of age-related change in microstructure. Widespread and profound reduction in MT contrasted with local FA decreases paralleled by MD increases. R1 reductions and R2* increases were observed to a smaller extent in overlapping occipito-parietal white matter regions. We interpret our findings, based on current biophysical models, as a fingerprint of age-dependent brain atrophy and underlying microstructural changes in myelin, iron deposits and water. The VBQ approach we present allows for systematic unbiased exploration of the interaction between imaging parameters and extends current methods for detection of neurodegenerative processes in the brain. The demonstrated parameter-specific distribution patterns offer insights into age-related brain structure changes in vivo and provide essential baseline data for studying disease against a background of healthy ageing
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