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Journal Article

When less is more: Structural correlates of core executive functions in young adults: A VBM and cortical thickness study


Schroeter,  Matthias L.
Department Neurology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Clinic for Cognitive Neurology, University of Leipzig, Germany;

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Weise, C. M., Bachmann, T., Schroeter, M. L., & Saur, D. (2019). When less is more: Structural correlates of core executive functions in young adults: A VBM and cortical thickness study. NeuroImage, 189, 896-903. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.01.070.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0002-EF2F-E
Background The term executive functions (EF) describes a set of higher cognitive abilities/skills needed for goal-oriented and flexible behavior. In contrast to a multitude of functional neuroimaging studies of EF performance, only limited and partially inconclusive data is available for the structural-neuroanatomical underpinnings of EFs, particularly in healthy adults. Methods Here, we applied voxel-based morphometry (VBM) and additional analyses of cortical thickness (CTH; via surface-based morphometry) to a large sample of healthy young adults from the Human Connectome Project (N = 1110; Age 28.8 ± 3.7 years) with structural MRI data and test data reflective of three core EFs [i.e. cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory]. Results For CF and IC, VBM analyses yielded a distinct and largely overlapping pattern of exclusively negative associations, most prominently within the medial prefrontal cortex, the insular cortex, central/precentral regions, subcortical and mesotemporal structures. A similar, yet less pronounced pattern of negative associations was found in analyses of CTH. In contrast, both VBM and CTH analyses yielded no significant associations with WM performance. Conclusions Brain regions we found negatively associated with measures of cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control have been repeatedly highlighted by functional imaging studies of EF performance. The here observed inverse relationship with brain structural parameters may be related to the young age of our study population and well established neurobiological mechanisms of cortical maturation (i.e. cortical thinning via synaptic pruning and cortical myelination).