brain atrophy

Diet linked to brain atrophy in old age

January, 2012
  • A more rigorous measurement of diet finds that dietary factors account for nearly as much brain shrinkage as age, education, APOE genotype, depression and high blood pressure combined.

The study involved 104 healthy older adults (average age 87) participating in the Oregon Brain Aging Study. Analysis of the nutrient biomarkers in their blood revealed that those with diets high in omega 3 fatty acids and in vitamins C, D, E and the B vitamins had higher scores on cognitive tests than people with diets low in those nutrients, while those with diets high in trans fats were more likely to score more poorly on cognitive tests.

These were dose-dependent, with each standard deviation increase in the vitamin BCDE score ssociated with a 0.28 SD increase in global cognitive score, and each SD increase in the trans fat score associated with a 0.30 SD decrease in global cognitive score.

Trans fats are primarily found in packaged, fast, fried and frozen food, baked goods and margarine spreads.

Brain scans of 42 of the participants found that those with diets high in vitamins BCDE and omega 3 fatty acids were also less likely to have the brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer's, while those with high trans fats were more likely to show such brain atrophy.

Those with higher omega-3 scores also had fewer white matter hyperintensities. However, this association became weaker once depression and hypertension were taken into account.

Overall, the participants had good nutritional status, but 7% were deficient in vitamin B12 (I’m surprised it’s so low, but bear in mind that these are already a select group, being healthy at such an advanced age) and 25% were deficient in vitamin D.

The nutrient biomarkers accounted for 17% of the variation in cognitive performance, while age, education, APOE genotype (presence or absence of the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’), depression and high blood pressure together accounted for 46%. Diet was more important for brain atrophy: here, the nutrient biomarkers accounted for 37% of the variation, while the other factors accounted for 40% (meaning that diet was nearly as important as all these other factors combined!).

The findings add to the growing evidence that diet has a significant role in determining whether or not, and when, you develop Alzheimer’s disease.

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Physical evidence bilingualism delays onset of Alzheimer's symptoms

January, 2012
  • Brain scans reveal that active bilinguals can have nearly twice as much brain atrophy as monolinguals before cognitive performance suffers.

Growing evidence points to greater education and mentally stimulating occupations and activities providing a cognitive reserve that enables people with developing Alzheimer's to function normally for longer. Cognitive reserve means that your brain can take more damage before it has noticeable effects. A 2006 review found that some 30% of older adults found to have Alzheimer’s when autopsied had shown no signs of it when alive.

There are two relevant concepts behind the protection some brains have: cognitive reserve (which I have mentioned on a number of occasions), and brain reserve, which is more structural. ‘Brain reserve’ encapsulates the idea that certain characteristics, such as a greater brain size, help protect the brain from damage. Longitudinal studies have provided evidence, for example, that a larger head size in childhood helps reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

While cognitive reserve has been most often associated with education, it has also been associated with occupation, bilingualism, and music. A new study provides physical evidence for how effective bilingualism is.

The Toronto study involved 40 patients with a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s, of whom half were bilingual (fluent in a second language, and consistent users of both languages throughout their lives). Bilingual and monolingual patients were matched on a test of cognitive function (the Behavioral Neurology Assessment). The two groups were similar in education levels, gender, and performance on the MMSE and the clock drawing test. The groups did differ significantly in occupational status, with the monolinguals having higher job status than the bilinguals.

Notwithstanding this similarity in cognitive performance, brain scans revealed that the bilingual group had substantially greater atrophy in the medial temporal lobe and the temporal lobe. The two groups did not differ in measures of central and frontal atrophy, however — these regions are not associated with Alzheimer’s.

In other words, bilingualism seems to specifically help protect those areas implicated in Alzheimers, and the bilinguals could take much greater damage to the brain before it impacted their cognitive performance. It is suggested that the act of constantly switching between languages, or suppressing one language in favor of other, may help train the brain to be more flexible when the need comes to compensate for damaged areas.

The findings are consistent with previous observational studies suggesting that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms by up to five years.

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[2712] Schweizer, T. A., Ware J., Fischer C. E., Craik F. I. M., & Bialystok E.
(2011).  Bilingualism as a contributor to cognitive reserve: Evidence from brain atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease.
Cortex.

Valenzuela MJ and Sachdev P. 2006. Brain reserve and dementia: A systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 36(4): 441e454.

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Brain atrophy may predict risk for early Alzheimer's disease

January, 2012
  • Shrinking of certain brain regions predicts age-related cognitive decline and dementia, with greater brain tissue loss markedly increasing risk.

A study involving 159 older adults (average age 76) has confirmed that the amount of brain tissue in specific regions is a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease development. Of the 159 people, 19 were classified as at high risk on the basis of the smaller size of nine small regions previously shown to be vulnerable to Alzheimer's), and 24 as low risk. The regions, in order of importance, are the medial temporal, inferior temporal, temporal pole, angular gyrus, superior parietal, superior frontal, inferior frontal cortex, supramarginal gyrus, precuneus.

There was no difference between the three risk groups at the beginning of the study on global cognitive measures (MMSE; Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale—cognitive subscale; Clinical Dementia Rating—sum of boxes), or in episodic memory. The high-risk group did perform significantly more slowly on the Trail-making test part B, with similar trends on the Digit Symbol and Verbal Fluency tests.

After three years, 125 participants were re-tested. Nine met the criteria for cognitive decline. Of these, 21% were from the small high-risk group (3/14) and 7% from the much larger average-risk group (6/90). None were from the low-risk group.

The results were even more marked when less stringent criteria were used. On the basis of an increase on the Clinical Dementia Rating, 28.5% of the high-risk group and 9.7% of the average-risk group showed decline. On the basis of declining at least one standard deviation on any one of the three neuropsychological tests, half the high-risk group, 35% of the average risk group, and 14% (3/21) of the low-risk group showed decline. (The composite criteria required both of these criteria.)

Analysis estimated that every standard deviation of cortical thinning (reduced brain tissue) was associated with a nearly tripled risk of cognitive decline.

The 84 individuals for whom amyloid-beta levels in the cerebrospinal fluid were available also revealed that 60% of the high-risk group had levels consistent with the presence of Alzheimer's pathology, compared to 36% of those at average risk and 19% of those at low risk.

The findings extend and confirm the evidence that brain atrophy in specific regions is a biomarker for developing Alzheimer’s.

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[2709] Dickerson, B. C., & Wolk D. A.
(2012).  MRI cortical thickness biomarker predicts AD-like CSF and cognitive decline in normal adults.
Neurology. 78(2), 84 - 90.

Dickerson BC, Bakkour A, Salat DH, et al. 2009. The cortical signature of Alzheimer’s disease: regionally specific cortical thinning relates to symptom severity in very mild to mild AD dementia and is detectable in asymptomatic amyloidpositive individuals. Cereb Cortex;19:497–510.

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Why diabetes is linked to cognitive impairment in older adults

January, 2012
  • The link between diabetes and cognitive impairment in older adults seems to be mediated by the release of molecules that increase inflammation, leading to constricted blood vessels, thus reduced blood flow, and finally loss of gray matter.

Why is diabetes associated with cognitive impairment and even dementia in older adults? New research pinpoints two molecules that trigger a cascade of events that end in poor blood flow and brain atrophy.

The study involved 147 older adults (average age 65), of whom 71 had type 2 diabetes and had been taking medication to manage it for at least five years. Brain scans showed that the diabetic patients had greater blood vessel constriction than the age- and sex-matched controls, and more brain atrophy. The reduction in brain tissue was most marked in the grey matter in the parietal and occipital lobes and cerebellum. Research has found that, at this age, while the average brain shrinks by about 1% annually, a diabetic brain might shrink by as much as 15%. Diabetics also had more white matter hyperintensities in the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes.

Behaviorally, the diabetics also had greater depression, slower walking, and executive dysfunction.

The reduced performance of blood vessels (greater vasoconstriction, blunted vasodilatation), and increased brain atrophy in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, was associated with two adhesion molecules – sVCAM and sICAM. White matter hyperintensities were not associated with the adhesion molecules, inflammatory markers, or blood vessel changes.

It seems that the release of these molecules, probably brought about by chronic hyperglycemia and insulin resistance, produces chronic inflammation, which in turn brings about constricted blood vessels, reduced blood flow, and finally loss of neurons. The blood vessel constriction and the brain atrophy were also linked to higher glucose levels.

The findings suggest that these adhesion molecules provide two biomarkers of vascular health that could enable clinicians to recognize impending brain damage, that could then perhaps be prevented.

The findings also add weight to the growing evidence that diabetes management is crucial in preventing cognitive decline.

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Why a select group of seniors retain their cognitive abilities

December, 2011
  • Comparison of the brains of octogenarians whose memories match those of middle-aged people reveals important differences between their brains and those of cognitively-normal seniors.

A certain level of mental decline in the senior years is regarded as normal, but some fortunate few don’t suffer from any decline at all. The Northwestern University Super Aging Project has found seniors aged 80+ who match or better the average episodic memory performance of people in their fifties. Comparison of the brains of 12 super-agers, 10 cognitively-normal seniors of similar age, and 14 middle-aged adults (average age 58) now reveals that the brains of super-agers also look like those of the middle-aged. In contrast, brain scans of cognitively average octogenarians show significant thinning of the cortex.

The difference between the brains of super-agers and the others was particularly marked in the anterior cingulate cortex. Indeed, the super agers appeared to have a much thicker left anterior cingulate cortex than the middle-aged group as well. Moreover, the brain of a super-ager who died revealed that, although there were some plaques and tangles (characteristic, in much greater quantities, of Alzheimer’s) in the mediotemporal lobe, there were almost none in the anterior cingulate. (But note an earlier report from the researchers)

Why this region should be of special importance is somewhat mysterious, but the anterior cingulate is part of the attention network, and perhaps it is this role that underlies the superior abilities of these seniors. The anterior cingulate also plays a role error detection and motivation; it will be interesting to see if these attributes are also important.

While the precise reason for the anterior cingulate to be critical to retaining cognitive abilities might be mysterious, the lack of cortical atrophy, and the suggestion that super-agers’ brains have much reduced levels of the sort of pathological damage seen in most older brains, adds weight to the growing evidence that cognitive aging reflects clinical problems, which unfortunately are all too common.

Sadly, there are no obvious lifestyle factors involved here. The super agers don’t have a lifestyle any different from their ‘cognitively average’ counterparts. However, while genetics might be behind these people’s good fortune, that doesn’t mean that lifestyle choices don’t make a big difference to those of us not so genetically fortunate. It seems increasingly clear that for most of us, without ‘super-protective genes’, health problems largely resulting from lifestyle choices are behind much of the damage done to our brains.

It should be emphasized that these unpublished results are preliminary only. This conference presentation reported on data from only 12 of 48 subjects studied.

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Harrison, T., Geula, C., Shi, J., Samimi, M., Weintraub, S., Mesulam, M. & Rogalski, E. 2011. Neuroanatomic and pathologic features of cognitive SuperAging. Presented at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.

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Obesity linked to better cognition in post-menopausal women

November, 2011
  • A new study suggests fat might help protect women from age-related cognitive decline.

Obesity has been linked to cognitive decline, but a new study involving 300 post-menopausal women has found that higher BMI was associated with higher cognitive scores.

Of the 300 women (average age 60), 158 were classified as obese (waist circumference of at least 88cm, or BMI of over 30). Cognitive performance was assessed in three tests: The Mini-Mental Statement Examination (MMSE), a clock-drawing test, and the Boston Abbreviated Test.

Both BMI and waist circumference were positively correlated with higher scores on both the MMSE and a composite cognitive score from all three tests. It’s suggested that the estrogen produced in a woman’s fat cells help protect cognitive function.

Interestingly, a previous report from the same researchers challenged the link found between metabolic syndrome and poorer cognitive function. This study, using data from a large Argentinean Cardiovascular Prevention Program, found no association between metabolic syndrome and cognitive decline — but the prevalence of metabolic syndrome and cognitive decline was higher in males than females. However, high inflammatory levels were associated with impairment of executive functions, and higher systolic blood pressure was associated with cognitive decline.

It seems clear that any connection between BMI and cognitive decline is a complex one. For example, two years ago I reported that, among older adults, higher BMI was associated with more brain atrophy (replicated below; for more recent articles relating obesity to cognitive impairment, click on the obesity link at the end of this report). Hypertension, inflammation, and diabetes have all been associated with greater risk of impairment and dementia. It seems likely that the connection between BMI and impairment is mediated through these and other factors. If your fat stores are not associated with such health risk factors, then the fat in itself is not likely to be harmful to your brain function — and may (if you’re a women) even help.

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Overweight and obese elderly have smaller brains

Analysis of brain scans from 94 people in their 70s who were still "cognitively normal" five years after the scan has revealed that people with higher body mass indexes had smaller brains on average, with the frontal and temporal lobes particularly affected (specifically, in the frontal lobes, anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and thalamus, in obese people, and in the basal ganglia and corona radiate of the overweight). The brains of the 51 overweight people were, on average, 6% smaller than those of the normal-weight participants, and those of the 14 obese people were 8% smaller. To put it in more comprehensible, and dramatic terms: "The brains of overweight people looked eight years older than the brains of those who were lean, and 16 years older in obese people." However, overall brain volume did not differ between overweight and obese persons. As yet unpublished research by the same researchers indicates that exercise protects these same brain regions: "The most strenuous kind of exercise can save about the same amount of brain tissue that is lost in the obese."

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Zilberman, J.M., Del Sueldo, M., Cerezo, G., Castellino, S., Theiler, E. & Vicario, A. 2011. Association Between Menopause, Obesity, and Cognitive Impairment. Presented at the Physiology of Cardiovascular Disease: Gender Disparities conference, October 12, at the University of Mississippi in Jackson.

Vicario, A., Del Sueldo, M., Zilberman, J. & Cerezo, G.H. 2011. The association between metabolic syndrome, inflammation and cognitive decline. Presented at the European Society of Hypertension (ESH) 2011: 21st European Meeting on Hypertension, June 17 - 20, Milan, Italy.

[733] Thompson, P. M., Raji C. A., Ho A. J., Parikshak N. N., Becker J. T., Lopez O. L., et al.
(2010).  Brain structure and obesity.
Human Brain Mapping. 31(3), 353 - 364.

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More evidence of the benefits of B vitamins in fighting cognitive decline

September, 2011
  • High daily doses of B-vitamins significantly slowed cognitive decline and brain atrophy in those with MCI, especially if they had high levels of homocysteine.

In a small study, 266 older adults with mild cognitive impairment (aged 70+) received a daily dose of 0.8 mg folic acid, 0.5 mg vitamin B12 and 20 mg vitamin B6 or a placebo for two years. Those treated with B vitamins had significantly lower levels of homocysteine at the end of the trial (high homocysteine is a known risk factor for age-related cognitive decline and dementia). Moreover, this was associated with a significantly slower rate of brain shrinkage.

However, while there were significant effects on homocysteine level, brain atrophy, and executive function, it wasn’t until results were separated on the basis of baseline homocysteine levels that we get really dramatic results.

It was the group with high homocysteine levels at the start of the study who really benefited from the high doses of B vitamins. For them, brain atrophy was cut by half, and there were clear benefits in episodic memory, semantic memory, and global cognitive function, not just executive function. Among those with high baseline homocysteine who received the placebo, significant cognitive decline occurred.

The level of B vitamins in the supplements was considerably greater than the recommended standard. However, caution must be taken in dosing yourself with supplements, because folic acid can have negative effects. Better to try and get your diet right first.

A longer and larger follow-up study is now planned, and hopefully that will tell us if such treatment can keep MCI developing into Alzheimer’s.

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Memory loss in old age the price we pay for a large brain & a long life?

September, 2011
  • Chimpanzee brains don’t shrink with age as humans’ do. It may be that cognitive impairment and even dementia are our lot because we work our brains too hard for too long.

Comparison of 99 chimpanzee brains ranging from 10-51 years of age with 87 human brains ranging from 22-88 years of age has revealed that, unlike the humans, chimpanzee brains showed no sign of shrinkage with age. But the answer may be simple: we live much longer. In the wild, chimps rarely live past 45, and although human brains start shrinking as early as 25 (as soon as they reach maturity, basically!), it doesn’t become significant until around 50.

The answer suggests one reason why humans are uniquely vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease — it’s all down to our combination of large brain and long life. There are other animals that experience some cognitive impairment and brain atrophy as they age, but nothing as extreme as that found in humans (a 10-15% decline in volume over the life-span). (Elephants and whales have the same two attributes as humans — large brains and long lives — but we lack information on how their brains change with age.)

The problem may lie in the fact that our brains use so much more energy than chimps’ (being more than three times larger than theirs) and thus produce a great deal more damaging oxidation. Over a longer life-span, this accumulates until it significantly damages the brain.

If that’s true, it reinforces the value of a diet high in antioxidants.

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[2500] Sherwood, C. C., Gordon A. D., Allen J. S., Phillips K. A., Erwin J. M., Hof P. R., et al.
(2011).  Aging of the cerebral cortex differs between humans and chimpanzees.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108(32), 13029 - 13034.

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Alzheimer's disease symptoms more subtle in people over 80

September, 2011
  • A new study shows that, among the very old, it’s harder to distinguish between normal brain atrophy and cognitive impairment and that indicative of Alzheimer’s.

A study involving 105 people with Alzheimer's disease and 125 healthy older adults has compared cognitive function and brain shrinkage in those aged 60-75 and those aged 80+.

It was found that the association between brain atrophy and cognitive impairment typically found in those with Alzheimer’s disease was less evident in the older group. This is partly because of the level of brain atrophy in healthy controls in that age group — there was less difference between the healthy controls and those with Alzheimer’s. Additionally, when compared to their healthy counterparts, executive function, immediate memory and attention/processing speed were less abnormal in the older group than they were in the younger group.

The finding suggests that mild Alzheimer’s in the very old may go undetected, and emphasize the importance of taking age into account when interpreting test performance and brain measures.

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Religious factors may influence brain shrinkage in old age

July, 2011
  • An intriguing new study suggests life-changing religious experiences may result in greater brain shrinkage in old age.

The brain tends to shrink with age, with different regions being more affected than others. Atrophy of the hippocampus, so vital for memory and learning, is associated with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and has also been linked to depression.

In a study involving 268 older adults (58+), the hippocampus of those reporting a life-changing religious experience was found to be shrinking significantly more compared to those not reporting such an experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also found among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.

The participants are not a general sample — they were originally recruited for the NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly. However, some of the participants were from the control group, who had no history of depression. Brain scans were taken at the beginning of the study, and then every two years. The length of time between the baseline scan and the final scan ranged from 2 to 8 years (average was 4).

Questions about religious experiences were asked in an annual survey, so could change over time. Two-thirds of the group was female, and 87% were white. The average age was 68. At baseline, 42% of the group was non-born-again Protestant, 36% born-again Protestant; 8% Catholic; 6% other religion. Only 7% reported themselves as having no religion. By the end of the study, 44% (119 participants) reported themselves born-again, and 13% (36) reported having had life-changing religious experiences.

These associations persisted after depression status, acute stress, and social support were taken into account. Nor did other religious factors (such as prayer, meditation, or Bible study) account for the changes.

It is still possible that long-term stress might play a part in this association — the study measured acute rather than cumulative stress. The researchers suggest that life-changing religious experiences can be stressful, if they don’t fit in with your existing beliefs or those of your family and friends, or if they lead to new social systems that add to your stress.

Of course, the present results can be interpreted in several ways — is it the life-changing religious experience itself that is the crucial factor? Or the factors leading up to that experience? Or the consequences of that experience? Still, it’s certainly an intriguing finding, and it will be interesting to see more research expanding and confirming (or not!) this result.

More generally, the findings may help clarify the conflicting research about the effects of religion on well-being, by pointing to the fact that religion can’t be considered a single factor, but one subject to different variables, some of which may be positive and others not.

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