Cerebral atrophy is a common feature of many of the diseases that affect the brain. Atrophy of any tissue means loss of cells. In brain tissue, atrophy describes a loss of neurons and the connections between them. Atrophy can be generalized, which means that all of the brain has shrunk; or it can be focal, affecting only a limited area of the brain and resulting in a decrease of the functions that area of the brain controls. If the cerebral hemispheres (the two lobes of the brain that form the cerebrum) are affected, conscious thought and voluntary processes may be impaired.
Associated Diseases/Disorders: The pattern and rate of progression of cerebral atrophy depends on the disease involved. Diseases that cause cerebral atrophy include:
- stroke and traumatic brain injury
- Alzheimer’s disease, Pick’s disease, and fronto-temporal dementia
- cerebral palsy, in which lesions (damaged areas) may impair motor coordination
- Huntington’s disease, and other hereditary diseases that are associated with genetic mutations
- leukodystrophies, such as Krabbe disease, which destroy the myelin sheath that protects axons
- mitochondrial encephalomyopathies, such as Kearns-Sayre syndrome, which interfere with the basic functions of neurons
- multiple sclerosis, which causes inflammation, myelin damage, and lesions in cerebral tissue
- infectious diseases, such as encephalitis, neurosyphilis, and AIDS, in which an infectious agent or the inflammatory reaction to it destroys neurons and their axons
Symptoms of cerebral atrophy: Many diseases that cause cerebral atrophy are associated with dementia, seizures, and a group of language disorders called the aphasias.
- Dementia is characterized by a progressive impairment of memory and intellectual function that is severe enough to interfere with social and work skills. Memory, orientation, abstraction, ability to learn, visual-spatial perception, and higher executive functions such as planning, organizing, and sequencing may also be impaired.
- Seizures can take different forms, appearing as disorientation, repetitive movements, loss of consciousness, or convulsions.
- Aphasias are a group of disorders characterized by disturbances in speaking and understanding language. Receptive aphasia causes impaired comprehension. Expressive aphasia is reflected in odd choices of words, the use of partial phrases, disjointed clauses, and incomplete sentences.
There is no specific treatment or cure for cerebral atrophy. Some symptoms of underlying causes can be managed and treated. Controlling blood pressure and eating a healthy, balanced diet is advised. Some research suggests that physical exercise may slow the speed of atrophy. People should also stay active mentally and socially.
Cerebral atrophy can affect a person's lifespan. Some illnesses and diseases that cause cerebral atrophy are progressive, meaning the damage continues to worsen. Some individuals may eventually need supervised care either at home or in a nursing home. Disorders such as stroke can affect a person's quality of life and lifespan.
The NINDS funds research looking at many of the diseases and disorders that cause cerebral atrophy. Understanding the biological mechanisms that cause neurons to die in the brain will help researchers find ways to prevent, treat, and even cure the diseases that lead to cerebral atrophy. Information from the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus Brain Diseases