Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as a system failure is a concept supported by the finding of consistent extramotor as well as motor cerebral pathology. The functional correlates of the structural changes detected using advanced magnetic resonance imaging techniques such as diffusion tensor imaging and voxel-based morphometry have not been extensively studied. A group of 25 patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was compared to healthy control subjects using a multi-modal neuroimaging approach comprising T(1)-weighted, diffusion-weighted and resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging. Using probabilistic tractography, a grey matter connection network was defined based upon the prominent corticospinal tract and corpus callosum involvement demonstrated by white matter tract-based spatial statistics. This 'amyotrophic lateral sclerosis-specific' network included motor, premotor and supplementary motor cortices, pars opercularis and motor-related thalamic nuclei. A novel analysis protocol, using this disease-specific grey matter network as an input for a dual-regression analysis, was then used to assess changes in functional connectivity directly associated with this network. A spatial pattern of increased functional connectivity spanning sensorimotor, premotor, prefrontal and thalamic regions was found. A composite of structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging measures also allowed the qualitative discrimination of patients from controls. An integrated structural and functional connectivity approach therefore identified apparently dichotomous processes characterizing the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis cerebral network failure, in which there was increased functional connectivity within regions of decreased structural connectivity. Patients with slower rates of disease progression showed connectivity measures with values closer to healthy controls, raising the possibility that functional connectivity increases might not simply represent a physiological compensation to reduced structural integrity. One alternative possibility is that increased functional connectivity reflects a progressive loss of inhibitory cortical influence as part of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis pathogenesis, which might then have relevance to future therapeutic strategies.
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