The locus coeruleus (LC) is one of the earliest sites of tau pathology, making it a key structure in early Alzheimer’s disease (AD) progression. As the primary source of norepinephrine for the brain, reduced LC integrity may have negative consequences for brain health, yet macrostructural brain measures (e.g. cortical thickness) may not be sensitive to early stages of neurodegeneration. We therefore examined whether LC integrity was associated with differences in cortical gray matter microstructure among 435 men (mean age = 67.5; range = 62-71.7). LC structural integrity was indexed by contrast-to-noise ratio (LCCNR) from a neuromelanin-sensitive MRI scan. Restriction spectrum imaging (RSI), an advanced multi-shell diffusion technique, was used to characterize cortical microstructure, modeling total diffusion in restricted, hindered, and free water compartments. Higher LCCNR (greater integrity) was associated with higher hindered and lower free water diffusion in multiple cortical regions. In contrast, no associations between LCCNR and cortical thickness survived correction. Results suggest lower LC integrity is associated with patterns of cortical microstructure that may reflect a reduction in cytoarchitectural barriers due to broader neurodegenerative processes. These findings highlight the potential utility for LC imaging and advanced diffusion measures of cortical microstructure in assessing brain health and early identification of neurodegenerative processes.
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