Neuroimage. 2021 Sep 3:118553. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118553. Online ahead of print.
Tau PET has allowed for critical insights into in vivo patterns of tau accumulation and change in individuals early in the Alzheimer’s disease (AD) continuum. A key methodological step in tau PET analyses is the selection of a reference region, but there is not yet consensus on the optimal region especially for longitudinal tau PET analyses. This study examines how reference region selection influences results related to disease stage at baseline and over time. Longitudinal [18F]-AV1451 PET scans were examined using several common reference regions (e.g., eroded subcortical white matter, inferior cerebellar gray matter) in 62 clinically unimpaired amyloid negative (CU A-) individuals, 73 CU amyloid positive (CU A+) individuals, and 64 amyloid positive individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI A+) from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI). Cross-sectionally, both reference regions resulted in robust group differences between CU A-, CU A+, and MCI A+ groups, along with significant associations with CSF phosphorylated tau (pTau-181). However, these results were more focally specific and akin to Braak Staging using eroded white matter, whereas effects with inferior cerebellum were globally distributed across most cortical regions. Longitudinally, utilization of eroded white matter revealed significant accumulation greater than zero across more regions whereas change over time was diminished using inferior cerebellum. Interestingly, the inferior temporal target region seemed most robust to reference region selection with expected cross-sectional and longitudinal signal across both reference regions. With few exceptions, baseline tau did not significantly predict longitudinal change in tau in the same region regardless of reference region. In summary, reference region selection deserves further evaluation as this methodological step may lead to disparate findings. Inferior cerebellar gray matter may be more sensitive to cross-sectional flortaucipir differences, whereas eroded subcortical white matter may be more sensitive for longitudinal analyses examining regional patterns of change.