Causal structure discovery identifies risk factors and early brain markers related to evolution of white matter hyperintensities

Xinpeng Shen, Sheelakumari Raghavan, Scott A. Przybelski, Timothy G. Lesnick, Sisi Ma, Robert I. Reid, Jonathan Graff-Radford, Michelle M. Mielke, David S. Knopman, Ronald C. Petersen, Clifford R. Jack, György J. Simon, Prashanthi Vemuri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Our goal was to understand the complex relationship between age, sex, midlife risk factors, and early white matter changes measured by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and their role in the evolution of longitudinal white matter hyperintensities (WMH). We identified 1564 participants (1396 cognitively unimpaired, 151 mild cognitive impairment and 17 dementia participants) with age ranges of 30–90 years from the population-based sample of Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. We used computational causal structure discovery and regression analyses to evaluate the predictors of WMH and DTI, and to ascertain the mediating effect of DTI on WMH. We further derived causal graphs to understand the complex interrelationships between midlife protective factors, vascular risk factors, diffusion changes, and WMH. Older age, female sex, and hypertension were associated with higher baseline and progression of WMH as well as DTI measures (P ≤ 0.003). The effects of hypertension and sex on WMH were partially mediated by microstructural changes measured on DTI. Higher midlife physical activity was predictive of lower WMH through a direct impact on better white matter tract integrity as well as an indirect effect through reducing the risk of hypertension by lowering BMI. This study identified key risks factors, early brain changes, and pathways that may lead to the evolution of WMH.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103077
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • Causal discovery
  • Diffusion MRI
  • White matter health
  • White matter hyperintensities

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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