Brain starts shrinking long before Alzheimer's appears

June, 2011

A study following older adults for more than a decade has found that neural volume in specific brain regions markedly predicted later development of Alzheimer’s.

A long-term study of older adults with similar levels of education has found that those with the thinnest cerebral cortex in specific brain regions were the most likely to develop dementia. Among those in whom these signature brain areas were the thinnest at the beginning of the study, 55% developed dementia over the next decade, compared with 20% of those with average cortical thickness and none of those in whom cortical thickness was above average. Those with the thinnest cortical areas also developed Alzheimer's significantly faster.

The study involved two independent samples. In the first group, 33 people were followed for an average of 11 years, during which time eight developed Alzheimer's. In the second group, 32 people were followed for an average of seven years, and seven of them developed the disease. (So 23% developed Alzheimer’s in total.) Participants were divided into three groups based on cortical thickness in the key areas: 11 had the lowest levels, 9 had the highest, and 45 were average.