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A graph theory approach to clarifying aging and disease related changes in cognitive networks

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Laura WrightORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


In accordance with the physiological networks which underlie it, human cognition is characterized by both the segregation and interdependence of a number of cognitive domains. Cognition itself, therefore, can be conceptualized as a network of functions. A network approach to cognition has previously revealed topological differences in cognitive profiles between healthy and disease populations. The present study, therefore, used graph theory to determine variation in cognitive profiles across healthy aging and cognitive impairment. A comprehensive neuropsychological test battery was administered to 415 participants. This included three groups of healthy adults aged 18–39 (n = 75), 40–64 (n = 75), and 65 and over (n = 70) and three patient groups with either amnestic (n = 75) or non-amnestic (n = 60) mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s type dementia (n = 60). For each group, cognitive networks were created reflective of test-to-test covariance, in which nodes represented cognitive tests and edges reflected statistical inter-nodal significance (p < 0.05). Network metrics were derived using the Brain Connectivity Toolbox. Network-wide clustering, local efficiency and global efficiency of nodes showed linear differences across the stages of aging, being significantly higher among older adults when compared with younger groups. Among patients, these metrics were significantly higher again when compared with healthy older controls. Conversely, average betweenness centralities were highest in middle-aged participants and lower among older adults and patients. In particular, compared with controls, patients demonstrated a distinct lack of centrality in the domains of semantic processing and abstract reasoning. Network composition in the amnestic mild cognitive impairment group was similar to the network of Alzheimer’s dementia patients. Using graph theoretical methods, this study demonstrates that the composition of cognitive networks may be measurably altered by the aging process and differentially impacted by pathological cognitive impairment. Network alterations characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease in particular may occur early and be distinct from alterations associated with differing types of cognitive impairment. A shift in centrality between domains may be particularly relevant in identifying cognitive profiles indicative of underlying disease. Such techniques may contribute to the future development of more sophisticated diagnostic tools for neurodegenerative disease.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Wright LM, De Marco M, Venneri A

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience

Year: 2021

Volume: 13

Online publication date: 12/07/2021

Acceptance date: 04/06/2021

Date deposited: 15/07/2021

ISSN (electronic): 1663-4365

Publisher: Frontiers


DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2021.676618


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