Background: While it is well-known that deficits in motor performance and brain structural connectivity occur in the course of healthy aging, it is still unclear if and how these changes are related to each other. While some cross-sectional studies suggest that white matter (WM) microstructure is positively associated with motor function in healthy older adults, more evidence is needed. Moreover, longitudinal data is required to estimate whether similar associations can be found between trajectories of change in WM microstructure and motor function. The current study addresses this gap by investigating age-associations and longitudinal changes in WM microstructure and motor function, and the cross-sectional (level-level) and longitudinal (level-change, change-change) association between these two domains.
Method: We used multiple-occasion data (covering 4 years) from a large sample (N = 231) of healthy older adults from the Longitudinal Healthy Aging Brain (LHAB) database. To measure WM microstructure, we used diffusion-weighted imaging data to compute mean FA in three selected WM tracts [forceps minor (FMIN); superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF); corticospinal tract (CST)]. Motor function was measured via two motor speed tests (grooved pegboard, finger tapping) and one motor strength test (grip force test), separately for the left and the right hand. The statistical analysis was conducted with longitudinal growth curve models in the structural equation modeling framework.
Results: The results revealed longitudinal decline and negative cross-sectional age-associations for mean WM FA in the FMIN and SLF, and for motor function in all tests, with a higher vulnerability for left than right hand motor performance. Regarding cross-domain associations, we found a significant positive level-level correlation among mean WM FA in the FMIN with motor speed. Mean FA in SLF and CST was not correlated with motor performance measures, and none of the level-change or change-change associations were significant. Overall, our results (a) provide important insights into aging-related changes of fine motor abilities and FA in selected white matter tracts associated with motor control, (b) support previous cross-sectional work showing that neural control of movement in older adults also involves brain structures outside the core motor system and (c) align with the idea that, in healthy aging, compensatory mechanisms may be in place and longer time delays may be needed to reveal level-change or change-change associations.