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Front Aging Neurosci. 2017 Jun 9;9:188. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00188. eCollection 2017.

Cognitive Variability during Middle-Age: Possible Association with Neurodegeneration and Cognitive Reserve.

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Division of Clinical Geriatrics-Center for Alzheimer Research, Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, Karolinska InstitutetStockholm, Sweden.
Faculty of Psychology, University of La LagunaLa Laguna, Spain.
Faculty of Health Sciences, University Fernando Pessoa CanariasLas Palmas, Spain.
Facultad de Educación, Universidad Diego PortalesSantiago, Chile.


Objective: Increased variability in cognition with age has been argued as an indication of pathological processes. Focusing on early detection of neurodegenerative disorders, we investigated variability in cognition in healthy middle-aged adults. In order to understand possible determinants of this variability, we also investigated associations with cognitive reserve, neuroimaging markers, subjective memory complaints, depressive symptomatology, and gender. Method: Thirty-one 50 ± 2 years old individuals were investigated as target group and deviation was studied in comparison to a reference younger group of 30 individuals 40 ± 2 years old. Comprehensive neuropsychological and structural imaging protocols were collected. Brain regional volumes and cortical thickness were calculated with FreeSurfer, white matter hyperintensities with CASCADE, and mean diffusivity with FSL. Results: Across-individuals variability showed greater dispersion in lexical access, processing speed, executive functions, and memory. Variability in global cognition correlated with, reduced cortical thickness in the right parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, and increased mean diffusivity in the cingulum bundle and right inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus. A trend was also observed for the correlation between global cognition and hippocampal volume and female gender. All these associations were influenced by cognitive reserve. No correlations were found with subjective memory complaints, white matter hyperintensities and depressive symptomatology. Across-domains and across-tasks variability was greater in several executive components and cognitive processing speed. Conclusion: Variability in cognition during middle-age is associated with neurodegeneration in the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex and white matter tracts connecting this to the prefrontal dorsolateral cortex and the hippocampus. Moreover, this effect is influenced by cognitive reserve. Studying variability offers valuable information showing that differences do not occur in the same magnitude and direction across individuals, cognitive domains and tasks. These findings may have important implications for early detection of subtle cognitive impairment and clinical interpretation of deviation from normality.


cognition; cognitive reserve; cortical thickness; depressive symptomatology; mean diffusivity; middle-age; subjective memory complaints; white matter hyperintensities

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