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Keywords:

  • apathy;
  • thalamus;
  • diffusion tensor imaging;
  • healthy subjects;
  • prefrontal cortex;
  • sex differences

Although apathy has been extensively studied in relation to neuropsychiatric disorders, it is still unclear whether, in healthy people, it should be considered as a physiological phenomenon or whether it is a risk factor for progression to clinical disturbances. Here, we investigated subclinical apathy phenomenology and its brain microstructural correlates in healthy individuals. We submitted 72 participants to a comprehensive clinical assessment, a high-resolution structural MRI and a diffusion tensor imaging scan protocol. Data of individual microstructural (mean diffusivity and fractional anisotropy) variations were processed across genders in relation to the Apathy Rating Scale score. In females, subclinical apathy phenomenology was associated with microstructural variation of the bilateral thalami, the anterior thalamic radiation, the forceps major, and the corona radiate. These are white matter areas mostly connecting the thalami to the frontal and occipital cortices, regions that are known to be implicated in the expression of apathy in clinical samples. No significant relationship with brain microstructure was found in males who showed a positive correlation between subclinical apathy and somatic phenomenology of depression. In conclusion, our results show that in healthy individuals subclinical apathy phenomenology is associated with different mechanisms across genders, and raise the issue about whether brain microstructural changes associated with subclinical apathy in healthy females could be a precocious marker useful in the prediction of progression to more severe apathetic conditions. Hum Brain Mapp 34:3193–3203, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.