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This article has been peer reviewed. It is the author’s final published version in Cell Death and Disease Volume 5, Issue 3, March 2018, Article number e1151.

The published version is available at Copyright © Mueller et al.


BACKGROUND: MR Imaging has shown atrophy in brainstem regions that were linked to autonomic dysfunction in epilepsy patients. The brainstem projects to and modulates the activation state of several wide-spread cortical/subcortical regions. The goal was to investigate 1. Impact of brainstem atrophy on gray matter connectivity of cortical/subcortical structures and autonomic control. 2. Impact on the modulation of cortical/subcortical functional connectivity.

METHODS: 11 controls and 18 patients with non-lesional focal epilepsy (FE) underwent heart rate variability (HRV) measurements and a 3 T MRI (T1 in all subjects, task-free fMRI in 7 controls/ 12 FE). The brainstem was extracted, and atrophy assessed using deformation-based-morphometry. The age-corrected z-scores of the mean Jacobian determinants were extracted from 71 5x5x5 mm grids placed in brainstem regions associated with autonomic function. Cortical and non-brainstem subcortical gray matter atrophy was assessed with voxel-based-morphometry and mean age corrected z-scores of the modulated gray matter volumes extracted from 380 cortical/subcortical rois. The profile similarity index was used to characterize the impact of brainstem atrophy on gray matter connectivity. The fMRI was preprocessed in SPM12/Conn17 and the BOLD signal extracted from 398 ROIs (16 brainstem). A dynamic task-free analysis approach was used to identify activation states. Connectivity HRV relationship were assessed with Spearman rank correlations.

RESULTS: HRV was negatively correlated with reduced brainstem right hippocampus/parahippocampus gray matter connectivity in controls (p < .05, FDR) and reduced brainstem to right parietal cortex, lingual gyrus, left hippocampus/amygdala, parahippocampus, temporal pole, and bilateral anterior thalamus connectivity in FE (p < .05, FDR). Dynamic task-free fMRI analysis identified 22 states. The strength of the functional brainstem/cortical connectivity of state 15 was negatively associated with HRV (r = -0.5, p = .03) and positively with decreased brainstem-cortical (0.49, p = .03) gray matter connectivity.

CONCLUSION: The findings of this small pilot study suggest that impaired brainstem-cortex gray matter connectivity in FE negatively affects the brainstem's ability to control cortical activation.

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