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Brain. 2011 Aug;134(Pt 8):2274-86. doi: 10.1093/brain/awr164. Epub 2011 Jul 11.

Altered cortical-cerebellar circuits during verbal working memory in essential tremor.

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National Research Council, Neuroimaging Research Unit, Catanzaro, Italy.


Essential tremor is a common neurological disorder characterized by motor and cognitive symptoms including working memory deficits. Epidemiological research has shown that patients with essential tremor are at a higher risk to develop dementia relative to age-matched individuals; this demonstrates that cognitive impairments reflect specific, although poorly understood, disease mechanisms. Neurodegeneration of the cerebellum has been implicated in the pathophysiology of essential tremor itself; however, whether cerebellar dysfunctions relate to cognitive abnormalities is unclear. We addressed this issue using functional neuroimaging in 15 patients with essential tremor compared to 15 sex-, education- and age-matched healthy controls while executing a verbal working memory task. To remove confounding effects, patients with integrity of the nigrostriatal terminals, no dementia and abstinent from medications altering cognition were enrolled. We tested whether patients displayed abnormal activations of the cerebellum (posterior lobules) and other areas typically engaged in working memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, parietal lobules). Between-groups differences in the interactions of these regions were also assessed with functional connectivity methods. Finally, we determined whether individual differences in neuropsychological and clinical measures modulated the magnitude of regional brain responses and functional connectivity data in patients with essential tremor. Despite similar behavioural performances, patients showed greater cerebellar response (crus I/lobule VI) compared to controls during attentional-demanding working memory trials (F = 8.8; P < 0.05, corrected). They also displayed altered functional connectivity between crus I/lobule VI and regions implicated in focusing attention (executive control circuit including dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobule, thalamus) and in generating distracting self-related thoughts (default mode network including precuneus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus) (T-values > 3.2; P < 0.05, corrected). These findings were modulated by the variability in neuropsychological measures: patients with low cognitive scores displayed reduced connectivity between crus I/lobule VI and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and enhanced connectivity between crus I/lobule VI and the precuneus (T-values > 3.7; P < 0.05, corrected). It is likely that cerebellar neurodegeneration underlying essential tremor is reflected in abnormal communications between key regions responsible for working memory and that adaptive mechanisms (enhanced response of crus I/lobule VI) occur to limit the expression of cognitive symptoms. The connectivity imbalance between the executive control circuit and the default mode network in patients with essential tremor with low cognitive scores may represent a dysfunction, driven by the cerebellum, in suppressing task irrelevant thoughts via focused attention. Overall, our results offer new insights into pathophysiological mechanisms of cognition in essential tremor and suggest a primary role of the cerebellum in mediating abnormal interactions between the executive control circuit and the default mode network.

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