INTRODUCTION: Neuromelanin related signal changes in catecholaminergic nuclei are considered as a promising MRI biomarker in Parkinson's disease (PD). Until now, most studies have investigated the substantia nigra (SN), while signal changes might be more prominent in the locus coeruleus (LC). Ultra-high field MRI improves the visualisation of these small brainstem regions and might support the development of imaging biomarkers in PD.
OBJECTIVES: To compare signal intensity of the SN and LC on Magnetization Transfer MRI between PD patients and healthy controls (HC) and to explore its association with cognitive performance in PD.
METHODS: This study was conducted using data from the TRACK-PD study, a longitudinal 7T MRI study. A total of 78 early-stage PD patients and 36 HC were included. A mask for the SN and LC was automatically segmented and manually corrected. Neuromelanin related signal intensity of the SN and LC was compared between PD and HC.
RESULTS: PD participants showed a lower contrast-to-noise ratio (CNR) in the right SN (p = 0.029) and left LC (p = 0.027). After adding age as a confounder, the CNR of the right SN did not significantly differ anymore between PD and HC (p = 0.055). Additionally, a significant positive correlation was found between the SN CNR and memory function.
DISCUSSION: This study confirms that neuromelanin related signal intensity of the LC differs between early-stage PD patients and HC. No significant difference was found in the SN. This supports the theory of bottom-up disease progression in PD. Furthermore, loss of SN integrity might influence working memory or learning capabilities in PD patients.