Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Medical Biophysics


Keith S St Lawrence and J Kevin Shoemaker


There is growing interest in the role of vascular disease in accelerating age-related decline in cerebrovascular structural and functional integrity. Since an increased number of older adults are surviving chronic diseases, of which cardiovascular disease (CVD) is prevalent, there is an urgent need to understand relationships between cardiovascular dysfunction and brain health. It is unclear if CVD puts the brains of older adults, already experiencing natural brain aging, at greater risk for degeneration. In this thesis, the role of CVD in accelerating brain aging is explored. Because physical activity is known to provide neuroprotective benefits to brains of older adults, the role of physical activity in mediating disease effects were also explored.

Using novel neuroimaging techniques, measures of gray matter volume and cerebrovascular hemodynamics were compared between groups of coronary artery disease patients and age-matched controls, to describe regional effects of CVD on the brain. In a sub-set of patients, imaging measures were repeated after completion of a 6-month exercise training, part of a cardiac rehabilitation program, to examine exercise effects. Differences in cerebrovascular hemodynamics were measured as changes in resting cerebral blood flow (CBF) and changes in cerebrovascular reactivity (CVR) to hypercapnia (6% CO2) using a non-invasive perfusion magnetic resonance imaging technique, arterial spin labelling (ASL). We found decreased brain volume, CBF and CVR in several regions of the brains of coronary artery disease patients compared to age-matched healthy controls. The reductions in CBF and CVR were independent of underlying brain atrophy, suggesting that changes in cerebrovascular function could precede changes in brain structure. In addition, increase in brain volume and CBF were observed in some regions of the brain after exercise training, indicating that cardiac rehabilitation programs may have neurorehabiliation effects as well.

Since, CBF measured with ASL is not the [gold] standard measure of functional brain activity, we examined the regional correlation of ASL-CBF to glucose consumption rates (CMRglc) measured with positron emission tomography (PET), a widely acceptable marker of brain functional activity. Simultaneous measurements of ASL-CBF and PET-CMRglc were performed in a separate study in a group of older adults with no neurological impairment. Across brain regions, ASL-CBF correlated well with PET-CMRglc, but variations in regional coupling were found and demonstrate the role of certain brain regions in maintaining higher level of functional organization compared to other regions.

In general, the results of the thesis demonstrate the impact of CVD on brain health, and the neurorehabiliation capacity of cardiac rehabilitation. The work presented also highlights the ability of novel non-invasive neuroimaging techniques in detecting and monitoring subtle but robust changes in the aging human brain.