Background Relationships between cognitive deficits and brain morphological changes observed in schizophrenia are alternately explained by less gray matter in the brain cerebral cortex, by alterations in neural circuitry involving the basal ganglia, and by alteration in cerebellar structures and related neural circuitry. This work explored a model encompassing all of these possibilities to identify the strongest morphological relationships to cognitive skill in schizophrenia.
Methods Seventy-one patients with schizophrenia and sixty-five healthy control subjects were characterized by neuropsychological tests covering six functional domains. Measures of sixteen brain morphological structures were taken using semi-automatic and fully manual tracing of MRI images, with the full set of measures completed on thirty of the patients and twenty controls. Group differences were calculated. A Bayesian decision-theoretic method identified those morphological features, which best explained neuropsychological test scores in the context of a multivariate response linear model with interactions.
Results Patients performed significantly worse on all neuropsychological tests except some regarding executive function. The most prominent morphological observations were enlarged ventricles, reduced posterior superior vermis gray matter volumes, and increased putamen gray matter volumes in the patients.
The Bayesian method associated putamen volumes with verbal learning, vigilance, and (to a lesser extent) executive function, while caudate volumes were associated with working memory. Vermis regions were associated with vigilance, executive function, and, less strongly, visuo-motor speed. Ventricular volume was strongly associated with visuo-motor speed, vocabulary, and executive function. Those neuropsychological tests, which were strongly associated to ventricular volume, showed only weak association to diagnosis, possibly because ventricular volume was regarded a proxy for diagnosis. Diagnosis was strongly associated with the other neuropsychological tests, implying that the morphological associations for these tasks reflected morphological effects and not merely group volumetric differences. Interaction effects were rarely associated, indicating that volumetric relationships to neuropsychological performance were similar for both patients and controls.
Conclusion The association of subcortical and cerebellar structures to verbal learning, vigilance, and working memory supports the importance of neural connectivity to these functions. The finding that a morphological indicator of diagnosis (ventricular volume) provided more explanatory power than diagnosis itself for visuo-motor speed, vocabulary, and executive function suggests that volumetric abnormalities in the disease are more important for cognition than non-morphological features.