'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: Mayo Clinic maps brain, finds Alzheimer's patients drive differently

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

Related Stories

Mayo Clinic maps brain, finds Alzheimer's patients drive differently

July 16, 2012
Activity lingers longer in certain areas of the brain in those with Alzheimer's than it does in healthy people, Mayo Clinic researchers who created a map of the brain found. The results suggest varying brain activity may ...

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

Investigating patterns of degeneration in Alzheimer's disease

November 17, 2017
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is known to cause memory loss and cognitive decline, but other functions of the brain can remain intact. The reasons cells in some brain regions degenerate while others are protected is largely unknown. ...

Brain activity buffers against worsening anxiety

November 17, 2017
Boosting activity in brain areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also buffer against worsening anxiety, suggests a new study by Duke University researchers.

Study may point to new treatment approach for ASD

November 17, 2017
Using sophisticated genome mining and gene manipulation techniques, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have solved a mystery that could lead to a new treatment approach for autism spectrum disorder ...

Neuroscience research provides evidence the brain is strobing, not constant

November 17, 2017
It's not just our eyes that play tricks on us, but our ears. That's the finding of a landmark Australian-Italian collaboration that provides new evidence that oscillations, or 'strobes', are a general feature of human perception.

Paraplegic rats walk and regain feeling after stem cell treatment

November 16, 2017
Engineered tissue containing human stem cells has allowed paraplegic rats to walk independently and regain sensory perception. The implanted rats also show some degree of healing in their spinal cords. The research, published ...

Neuroscientists find chronic stress skews decisions toward higher-risk options

November 16, 2017
Making decisions is not always easy, especially when choosing between two options that have both positive and negative elements, such as deciding between a job with a high salary but long hours, and a lower-paying job that ...

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.