The white matter connections between the midbrain dopamine neurons and the striatum are part of a neural system involved in reward-based learning, a process that is impaired in patients with schizophrenia. The striato-nigro-striatal (SNS) tract, which participates in this process, has not as yet been explored. The present study aimed to use diffusion MRI (dMRI) to delineate the SNS tract, and to compare the application of two dMRI measures, Tract Dispersion (TD), an index of white matter morphology, and Fractional Anisotropy (FA), an index of white matter integrity, to detect group differences between patients with chronic schizophrenia (CSZ) and healthy controls (HC). dMRI scans were acquired in 22 male patients with CSZ and 23 age-matched HC. Two-tensor tractography was used in addition to manually-delineated regions of interest to extract the SNS tract. A mixed-model analysis of variance was used to investigate differences in TD and FA between CSZ patients and HC. The associations between TD and behavioral measures were also explored. Patients and controls differed significantly in TD (P = 0.04), but not in FA (P = 0.69). The group differences in TD were driven by a higher TD in the right hemisphere in the CSZ group. Higher TD correlated significantly with poorer performance in the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) when combining the scores of both groups. The findings suggest that dysconnectiviy of the SNS tract which is associated with schizophrenia, could arise from abnormalities in white matter morphology. These abnormalities may potentially reflect irregularities in brain development.
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