Background: Chronic hypoxia-ischemia is a putative mechanism underlying the development of white matter hyperintensities (WMH) and microstructural disruption in cerebral small vessel disease. WMH fall primarily within deep white matter (WM) watershed regions. We hypothesized that elevated oxygen extraction fraction (OEF), a signature of hypoxia-ischemia, would be detected in the watershed where WMH density is highest. We further hypothesized that OEF would be elevated in regions immediately surrounding WMH, at the leading edge of growth. Methods: In this cross-sectional study conducted from 2016 to 2019 at an academic medical center in St Louis, MO, participants (age >50) with a range of cerebrovascular risk factors underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging using pseudocontinuous arterial spin labeling, asymmetric spin echo, fluid-attenuated inversion recovery and diffusion tensor imaging to measure cerebral blood flow (CBF), OEF, WMH, and WM integrity, respectively. We defined the physiologic watershed as a region where CBF was below the 10th percentile of mean WM CBF in a young healthy cohort. We conducted linear regression to evaluate the relationship between CBF and OEF with structural and microstructural WM injury defined by fluid-attenuated inversion recovery WMH and diffusion tensor imaging, respectively. We conducted ANOVA to determine if OEF was increased in proximity to WMH lesions. Results: In a cohort of 42 participants (age 50-80), the physiologic watershed region spatially overlapped with regions of highest WMH lesion density. As CBF decreased and OEF increased, WMH density increased. Elevated watershed OEF was associated with greater WMH burden and microstructural disruption, after adjusting for vascular risk factors. In contrast, WM and watershed CBF were not associated with WMH burden or microstructural disruption. Moreover, OEF progressively increased while CBF decreased, in concentric contours approaching WMH lesions. Conclusions: Chronic hypoxia-ischemia in the watershed region may contribute to cerebral small vessel disease pathogenesis and development of WMH. Watershed OEF may hold promise as an imaging biomarker to identify individuals at risk for cerebral small vessel disease progression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1570-1579
Number of pages10
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2022


  • cerebral small vessel diseases
  • dementia
  • ischemia
  • leukoaraiosis
  • magnetic resonance imaging


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