Capturing the dynamics of gray matter (GM) atrophy in relation to the conversion from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to clinically probable Alzheimer's disease (AD) would be of considerable interest. In this prospective study we have used a novel longitudinal voxel-based method to map the progression of GM loss in MCI patients over time and compared converters to non-converters. Eighteen amnestic MCI patients were followed-up for a predefined fixed period of 18 months and conversion was judged according to NINCDS-ADRDA criteria for probable AD. Each patient underwent a high-resolution T1-weighted volume MRI scan both at entry in the study and 18 months later. We used an optimal VBM protocol to compare baseline imaging data of converters to those of non-converters. Moreover, to map GM loss from baseline to follow-up assessment, we used a modified voxel-based morphometry (VBM) procedure specially designed for longitudinal studies. At the end of the follow-up period, seven patients had converted to probable AD. Areas of lower baseline GM value in converters mainly included the hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, and lingual and fusiform gyri. Regions of significant GM loss over the 18-month follow-up period common to both converters and non-converters included the temporal neocortex, parahippocampal cortex, orbitofrontal and inferior parietal areas, and the left thalamus. However, there was significantly greater GM loss in converters relative to non-converters in the hippocampal area, inferior and middle temporal gyrus, posterior cingulate, and precuneus. This accelerated atrophy may result from both neurofibrillary tangles accumulation and parallel pathological processes such as functional alteration in the posterior cingulate. The ability to longitudinally assess GM changes in MCI offers new perspectives to better understand the pathological processes underlying AD and to monitor the effects of treatment on brain structure.
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