The dementia-apathy link


Older people who are apathetic, who lack interest or emotion, are more likely to have smaller brain volumes than people who do not have apathy. This is according to a new study from research team including Lenore J. Launer, PhD, of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Past research has shown a relationship between depression later in life and white matter lesions (WML) – small areas of dead cells - on the brain.

What role does apathy play?

For people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, apathy has been linked to increased WMLs in the frontal lobe as well as atrophy of brain size. The presence of apathy made researchers wonder what the role of apathy played in brain for those with dementia. “It remains unclear whether apathy is related to atrophy and WMLs in older persons without dementia,” noted the study authors. “Because apathy differs in prognosis and pharmacologic treatment and can occur independent of depression, it is important to distinguish apathy from late-life depression.” Scientists studied 4,354 people average aged 76 years. All underwent MRI and answered a questionnaire.

Apathy definitely connected to brain volume loss

Researchers found that people who had two or more symptoms of apathy at 1.4% less gray matter and 1.6% less white matter volume than those with fewer symptoms. Gray matter is the area where memories are stored and learning takes place. White matter controls communication between brain regions. Loss in either area can affect cognitive function. When depression was included in the symptomology, there was no change indicating that apathy alone may be a risk factor.

Apathy may be an indicator of brain loss

“Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes. Apathy symptoms are common in older people without dementia. And the fact that participants in our study had apathy without depression should turn our attention to how apathy alone could indicate brain disease,” concluded Launer.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Neurology

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