Cerebral Atrophy: Is Your Brain Shrinking?

Symptoms, Causes, and Possible Treatments for Brain Atrophy

Cerebral Atrophy: Alzheimer's disease vs normal
ALFRED PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

The term cerebral means brain and atrophy means loss of cells or shrinkage. When our brains atrophy, the neurons and their connections waste away and the brain is literally getting smaller.

What Are the Symptoms of Brain Atrophy?

Atrophy in the brain may cause seizures, dementia (including memory loss, executive functioning impairment and behavior changes) and aphasia (difficulty with expressing language or understanding it. Muscle weakness and hearing loss can also be symptoms of brain atrophy and should be reported to your physician for further investigation. 

What Causes Cerebral Atrophy?

Several different medical conditions can cause the brain to atrophy, including Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia, stroke, cerebral palsy, Huntington's disease, and some infections such as AIDS and encephalitis.

What Parts of the Brain Are Typically Affected by Atrophy in Dementia?

In Alzheimer's disease, the hippocampus, which helps form new memories, and the cortex, which helps us think, plan and remember, are two areas that are especially affected by atrophy. However, the whole brain shrinks as well. Reduced brain volume can be seen on imaging studies which compare healthy brains to those with atrophy present.

In frontotemporal dementia, the frontal and temporal lobes generally see the most atrophy. Atrophy of these areas of the brain often initially present as personality and behavior changes, whereas Alzheimer's disease often initially affects memory.

A study sought to identify which areas of the brain are generally more atrophied in Lewy body dementia. Researchers found that the midbrain, hypothalamus and substantia innominata were generally the areas with the most atrophy. Being able to establish a pattern of where the atrophy is concentrated can potentially assist in correctly diagnosing the type of dementia.

In vascular dementia, the amount and location of the atrophy vary depending on whether there is a specific area that is affected by a stroke, for example, or multiple small blockages which are correlated with an overall reduced volume of the brain.

Brain atrophy is also present in Huntington's disease. Interestingly, research has found that locations and degrees of brain atrophy vary in Huntington's.

In Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, atrophy also varies significantly, with some cases showing almost no atrophy at all and others developing some generalized atrophy in the overall brain volume.

What Is 'Age-Related Atrophy'?

As people age, a small amount of brain atrophy is expected. Thus, you might hear the doctor explain your MRI scan as showing "age-related atrophy." One study found that in healthy participants without dementia between the ages of 60-91, some amount of brain atrophy developed in as little as one year's time.

Does Brain Atrophy Mean that Dementia Is Likely to Develop Soon?

It's important to know that while significant brain atrophy is a sign of a problem, research supports the idea that age-related brain atrophy does not necessarily mean that dementia is about to develop. Scientists also concluded that the speed of atrophy is more of a factor than the fact that some atrophy is present. In other words, if brain volume declines more quickly than normal, this may indicate a concern.

Can Brain Atrophy Be Prevented or Reversed?

Some research has shown that physical exercise can reduce the speed of atrophy or even reverse some of the atrophy in certain areas of the brain. 

Other research suggests that supplementation with vitamin B (including vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6) also helps slow brain atrophy.

A correlation between cerebral atrophy and diet has also been found in some research. For example, in one study, greater brain atrophy (shrinkage) was found in participants who least followed the Mediterranean diet. 

A Word from Verywell

While some causes of cerebral atrophy are outside of our control, others may be impacted by our life choices. We at Verywell hope that learning about these causes and risk reduction strategies will encourage you on your journey towards good brain health.  

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