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Cognitive dysfunction and brain structural connectivity alterations have been observed in major depressive disorder (MDD). However, little is known about their interrelation. The present study follows a network approach to evaluate alterations in cognition-related brain structural networks.
Cognitive performance of n = 805 healthy and n = 679 acutely depressed or remitted individuals was assessed using 14 cognitive tests aggregated into cognitive factors. The structural connectome was reconstructed from structural and diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging. Associations between global connectivity strength and cognitive factors were established using linear regressions. Network-based statistics were applied to identify subnetworks of connections underlying these global-level associations. In exploratory analyses, effects of depression were assessed by evaluating remission status-related group differences in subnetwork-specific connectivity. Partial correlations were employed to directly test the complete triad of cognitive factors, depressive symptom severity, and subnetwork-specific connectivity strength.
All cognitive factors were associated with global connectivity strength. For each cognitive factor, network-based statistics identified a subnetwork of connections, revealing, for example, a subnetwork positively associated with processing speed. Within that subnetwork, acutely depressed patients showed significantly reduced connectivity strength compared to healthy controls. Moreover, connectivity strength in that subnetwork was associated to current depressive symptom severity independent of the previous disease course.
Our study is the first to identify cognition-related structural brain networks in MDD patients, thereby revealing associations between cognitive deficits, depressive symptoms, and reduced structural connectivity. This supports the hypothesis that structural connectome alterations may mediate the association of cognitive deficits and depression severity.
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