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Neurologists discover shrinking brain area linked to memory loss

Age-related memory loss comes in many forms. New research from Harvard suggests that these different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, may all be linked to the shrinkage of a specific region of the brain.

Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 5.8 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is the most common form of dementia and age-associated memory loss. But this is not the only form.

Scientists do not yet fully understand the direct causes of the disease in most patients, but we do know that the development of Alzheimer’s disease is associated with the accumulation of abnormal proteins in the brain, such as tau and amyloid plaques, as well as changes. in the structure and function of the brain.

Recent years have seen dramatic developments in Alzheimer’s disease research and drug discovery. But it is necessary to distinguish between Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline to ensure effective treatment is implemented quickly.

Image of a brain x-ray. Shrinkage of certain areas of the brain is associated with faster cognitive decline in patients with different forms of dementia.
Digital vision./Getty

To better understand the molecular basis of these various diseases, Bernard Hanseeuw of Harvard Medical School recruited 128 participants with an average age of 72 years. Participants were expected to have no problems with thinking or memory at the start of the study.

Over the seven-year study period, each participant underwent several types of brain ultrasound to measure specific biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, such as amyloid plaques and tau tangles, as well as volume of the hippocampus, an area of ​​the brain involved in learning and learning. memory. Participants were also required to undergo annual cognitive assessments.

Looking at these results, hippocampal shrinkage was associated with faster cognitive decline, regardless of whether participants had biomarkers of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, hippocampal shrinkage alone accounted for 10% of the difference in the magnitude of cognitive decline between participants.

“These findings highlight that dementia is a complex disease with many underlying causes and suggest that types of dementia other than Alzheimer’s disease may contribute to hippocampal shrinkage and cognitive decline,” Hanseeuw said. “(Our studies) suggest that neurodegenerative diseases other than Alzheimer’s disease contribute to this decline, and measuring hippocampal volume could help us assess these causes that are currently difficult to measure. This could help us better predict…people’s trajectories of cognitive decline.”

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