Increasing evidence shows that thinner retinal nerve fiber layer (RNFL) and ganglion cell layer (GCL), assessed on optical coherence tomography (OCT), are reflecting global brain atrophy. Yet, little is known on the relation of these layers with specific brain regions. Using voxel-based analysis, we aimed to unravel specific brain regions associated with these retinal layers. We included 2,235 persons (mean age: 67.3 years, 55% women) from the Rotterdam Study (2007–2012) who had gradable retinal OCT images and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, including diffusion tensor (DT) imaging. Thicknesses of peripapillary RNFL and perimacular GCL were measured using an automated segmentation algorithm. Voxel-based morphometry protocols were applied to process DT-MRI data. We investigated the association between retinal layer thickness with voxel-wise gray matter density and white matter microstructure by performing linear regression models. We found that thinner RNFL and GCL were associated with lower gray matter density in the visual cortex, and with lower fractional anisotropy and higher mean diffusivity in white matter tracts that are part of the optic radiation. Furthermore, thinner GCL was associated with lower gray matter density of the thalamus. Thinner RNFL and GCL are associated with gray and white matter changes in the visual pathway suggesting that retinal thinning on OCT may be specifically associated with changes in the visual pathway rather than with changes in the global brain. These findings may serve as a basis for understanding visual symptoms in elderly patients, patients with Alzheimer's disease, or patients with posterior cortical atrophy.

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Human Brain Mapping
Department of Epidemiology

Mutlu, Ü., Ikram, K., Roshchupkin, G., Bonnemaijer, P., Colijn, J., Vingerling, H., … Vernooij, M.W. (Meike W.). (2018). Thinner retinal layers are associated with changes in the visual pathway: A population-based study. Human Brain Mapping, 39(11), 4290–4301. doi:10.1002/hbm.24246