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Human episodic memory is supported by networks of white matter tracts that connect frontal, temporal, and parietal regions. Degradation of white matter microstructure is increasingly recognized as a general mechanism of cognitive deterioration with aging. However, atrophy of gray matter regions also occurs and, to date, the potential role of specific white matter connections has been largely ignored. Changes to frontotemporal tracts may be important for the decline of episodic memory; while frontotemporal cooperation is known to be critical, the precise pathways of interaction are unknown. Diffusion-weighted MRI tractography was used to reconstruct three candidate fasciculi known to link components of memory networks: the fornix, the parahippocampal cingulum, and the uncinate fasciculus. Age-related changes in the microstructure of these tracts were investigated in 40 healthy older adults between the ages of 53 and 93 years. The relationships between aging, microstructure, and episodic memory were assessed for each individual tract. Age-related reductions of mean fractional anisotropy and/or increased mean diffusivity were found in all three tracts. However, age-related decline in recall was specifically associated with degradation of fornix microstructure, consistent with the view that this tract is important for episodic memory. In contrast, a decline in uncinate fasciculus microstructure was linked to impaired error monitoring in a visual object–location association task, echoing the effects of uncinate transection in monkeys. These results suggest that degradation of microstructure in the fornix and the uncinate fasciculus make critical but differential contributions to the mechanisms underlying age-related cognitive decline and subserve distinct components of memory.

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Journal Article

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