'Harmless' condition shown to alter brain function in elderly

August 13, 2012

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic say a common condition called leukoaraiosis, made up of tiny areas in the brain that have been deprived of oxygen and appear as bright white dots on MRI scans, is not a harmless part of the aging process, but rather a disease that alters brain function in the elderly. Results of their study are published online in the journal Radiology.

"There has been a lot of controversy over these commonly identified abnormalities on MRI scans and their clinical impact," said Kirk M. Welker, M.D., assistant professor of radiology in the College of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "In the past, leukoaraiosis has been considered a benign part of the aging process, like gray hair and wrinkles."

Leukoaraiosis, also called small vessel ischemia and often referred to as unidentified bright objects or "UBOs" on , is a condition in which diseased blood vessels lead to small areas of damage in the white matter of the brain. The lesions are common in the brains of people over the age of 60, although the amount of disease varies among individuals.

"We know that aging is a risk factor for leukoaraiosis, and we suspect that high blood pressure may also play a role," Dr. Welker said.

Dr. Welker's team performed functional MRI (fMRI) scans on cognitively normal elderly participants recruited from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging between 2006 and 2010. In 18 participants, the amount of leukoaraiosis was a moderate 25 milliliters, and in 18 age-matched , the amount of disease was less than five milliliters.

The patients were imaged in an as they performed a semantic decision task by identifying and a task that involved differentiating straight from diagonal lines. fMRI is a special type of that measures metabolic changes in an active part of the brain.

Although both groups performed the tasks with similar success, the fMRI scans revealed different patterns between the two groups. Compared to members of the control group, patients with moderate levels of leukoaraiosis had atypical activation patterns, including decreased activation in areas of the brain involved in language processing during the semantic decision task and increased activation in the visual-spatial areas of the brain during the visual perception task.

"Different systems of the brain respond differently to disease," Dr. Welker explained. "White matter damage affects connections within the brain's language network, which leads to an overall reduction in network activity."

He pointed out that identifying leukoaraiosis in the brain is important, both for individual patients undergoing brain mapping for surgery or other treatments and for research studies.

For improved neurological health, Dr. Welker said efforts should be taken to prevent leukoaraiosis from occurring.

"Our results add to a growing body of evidence that this is a disease we need to pay attention to," he said. "Leukoaraiosis is not a benign manifestation of aging but an important pathologic condition that alters ."

Explore further: Functional brain pathways disrupted in children with ADHD

More information: "Altered Functional MR Imaging Language Activation in Elderly Individuals with Cerebral Leukoaraiosis," Radiology.

Related Stories

Functional brain pathways disrupted in children with ADHD

November 28, 2011

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have identified abnormalities in the brains of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that may serve as a biomarker for the disorder, ...

Recommended for you

Study identifies how brain connects memories across time

May 23, 2016

Using a miniature microscope that opens a window into the brain, UCLA neuroscientists have identified in mice how the brain links different memories over time. While aging weakens these connections, the team devised a way ...

The brain needs cleaning to stay healthy

May 26, 2016

Research led by the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience, the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), and the Ikerbasque Foundation has revealed the mechanisms that keep the brain clean during neurodegenerative diseases.

Neuroscientists illuminate role of autism-linked gene

May 25, 2016

A new study from MIT neuroscientists reveals that a gene mutation associated with autism plays a critical role in the formation and maturation of synapses—the connections that allow neurons to communicate with each other.

Teen brains facilitate recovery from traumatic memories

May 25, 2016

Unique connections in the adolescent brain make it possible to easily diminish fear memories and avoid anxiety later in life, according to a new study by Weill Cornell Medicine researchers. The findings may have important ...

Mimicking deep sleep brain activity improves memory

May 26, 2016

It is not surprising that a good night's sleep improves our ability to remember what we learned during the day. Now, researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have discovered a brain circuit that governs how ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.