Investigating the contribution of white matter hyperintensities and cortical thickness to empathy in neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases
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Change in empathy is an increasingly recognised symptom of neurodegenerative diseases and contributes to caregiver burden and patient distress. Empathy impairment has been associated with brain atrophy but its relationship to white matter hyperintensities (WMH) is unknown. We aimed to investigate the relationships amongst WMH, brain atrophy, and empathy deficits in neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases. Five hundred thirteen participants with Alzheimer's disease/mild cognitive impairment, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, frontotemporal dementia (FTD), Parkinson's disease, or cerebrovascular disease (CVD) were included. Empathy was assessed using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. WMH were measured using a semi-automatic segmentation and FreeSurfer was used to measure cortical thickness. A heterogeneous pattern of cortical thinning was found between groups, with FTD showing thinning in frontotemporal regions and CVD in left superior parietal, left insula, and left postcentral. Results from both univariate and multivariate analyses revealed that several variables were associated with empathy, particularly cortical thickness in the fronto-insulo-temporal and cingulate regions, sex (female), global cognition, and right parietal and occipital WMH. Our results suggest that cortical atrophy and WMH may be associated with empathy deficits in neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases. Future work should consider investigating the longitudinal effects of WMH and atrophy on empathy deficits in neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases.
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