Significance of white matter anatomy in interpreting features and behaviour of low-grade gliomas and implications for surgical treatment

Abstract: Diffuse gliomas are extremely heterogeneous tumours characterized by slow growth but extensive infiltration. Their kinetic features reflect the complex interaction over time with the surrounding brain, influencing treatment planning and outcome. Indeed, resection of diffuse gliomas present a surgical challenge due to their invasiveness and the preferential location in eloquent regions. White matter bundles are the main eloquent limit to surgical resection, but this anatomical-functional information cannot be predicted preoperatively on the individual level. The incomplete description of the human brain connectome, the complex application of pathological/lesion model to the brain connectomic organization, and the underestimated role of white matter anatomy in radiological classification systems are among the major limitations for the comprehension of the glioma/white matter interaction. The overall aim of this thesis was to explore a new approach and new techniques to study the glioma/white matter interaction. A combination of white matter dissection and diffusion tensor tractography (DTT) was used to describe the connectomic organization of two major temporo-occipital connections, the inferior and the middle longitudinal fasciculus. This information was applied to patients with diffuse gliomas, demonstrating how white matter analysis was important to decode patient specific cognitive and language impairment. A new classification system for diffuse gliomas, the Brain-Grid, was created, merging local radiological anatomy with a DTT atlas for infiltration analysis. This standardized radiological tool provided information on subcortical extension (tumour invasiveness), speed, and preferential direction of glioma progression. Applied to a larger cohort of patients, differences were detected between diffuse gliomas subtypes. Tumour invasiveness and the preferential location, type, and extent of white matter involvement differed, impacting overall survival. Regional differences in white matter infiltration were detected among five major white matter bundles, and possible favourable morphological and diffusion features were investigated with transmission electron microscopy and DTT. Fibre diameter, myelin thickness, and the organization of the white matter fibres were different in regions with high infiltration frequency, providing a possible link to the preferential location of diffuse gliomas. Finally, the white matter connectivity, tumour-induced neuroplasticity, clinical and demographic information, preoperative assessment (neuropsychological and language evaluation) were compared with intraoperative findings during awake surgery. Neuropsychological impairment was associated with more invasive tumours and a higher risk of the intraoperative finding of eloquent tumour. The pattern of early cortical neuroplasticity seemed exhausted at the time of diagnosis, with age as a factor predicting the neuroplasticity potential. The combined use of these new techniques revealed new insights into the glioma/white matter interaction. The results provided in this thesis, describe a new way to structure the multidisciplinary perioperative management of these patients. This new information may improve the functional outcome at the individual level, resulting in prolonged survival for adults with diffuse gliomas.