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Frontiers in Neuroscience



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Background: Regional changes to cortical thickness in individuals with neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases (CVD) can be estimated using specialized neuroimaging software. However, the presence of cerebral small vessel disease, focal atrophy, and cortico-subcortical stroke lesions, pose significant challenges that increase the likelihood of misclassification errors and segmentation failures. Purpose: The main goal of this study was to examine a correction procedure developed for enhancing FreeSurfer’s (FS’s) cortical thickness estimation tool, particularly when applied to the most challenging MRI obtained from participants with chronic stroke and CVD, with varying degrees of neurovascular lesions and brain atrophy. Methods: In 155 CVD participants enrolled in the Ontario Neurodegenerative Disease Research Initiative (ONDRI), FS outputs were compared between a fully automated, unmodified procedure and a corrected procedure that accounted for potential sources of error due to atrophy and neurovascular lesions. Quality control (QC) measures were obtained from both procedures. Association between cortical thickness and global cognitive status as assessed by the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) score was also investigated from both procedures. Results: Corrected procedures increased “Acceptable” QC ratings from 18 to 76% for the cortical ribbon and from 38 to 92% for tissue segmentation. Corrected procedures reduced “Fail” ratings from 11 to 0% for the cortical ribbon and 62 to 8% for tissue segmentation. FS-based segmentation of T1-weighted white matter hypointensities were significantly greater in the corrected procedure (5.8 mL vs. 15.9 mL, p < 0.001). The unmodified procedure yielded no significant associations with global cognitive status, whereas the corrected procedure yielded positive associations between MoCA total score and clusters of cortical thickness in the left superior parietal (p = 0.018) and left insula (p = 0.04) regions. Further analyses with the corrected cortical thickness results and MoCA subscores showed a positive association between left superior parietal cortical thickness and Attention (p < 0.001). Conclusion: These findings suggest that correction procedures which account for brain atrophy and neurovascular lesions can significantly improve FS’s segmentation results and reduce failure rates, thus maximizing power by preventing the loss of our important study participants. Future work will examine relationships between cortical thickness, cerebral small vessel disease, and cognitive dysfunction due to neurodegenerative disease in the ONDRI study.

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