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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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New Clues to Memory Loss

Silent Strokes, Brain Shrinkage Both Linked With Memory Loss in Older Adults
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 29, 2011 -- Strokes so tiny they are termed ''silent'' may be linked to memory loss in older adults.

Previously, experts thought that memory loss among older adults was caused by deterioration in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory and other functions. Although that is still true, study researcher Adam Brickman, PhD, says his new research adds another possible cause to the list.

"What our study suggests is, even when we account for the decline in memory attributed to hippocampal shrinkage or degeneration, that strokes ... play an additional role in the memory decline," Brickman says. He is the Herbert Irving assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Typically, he says, stroke has been linked to loss of mental abilities such as how fast we process information or attention, but not necessarily memory.

The new research is published online in the journal Neurology.

Strokes and Memory: The Possible 'Silent' Link

The researchers tested 658 people. All were age 65 or older and free of dementia. They gave them MRI brain scans. They also tested them on memory, language, speed at processing information, and visual perception.

The men and women were enrolled in a larger study of aging and dementia. All live in northern Manhattan.

The researchers looked at the MRIs for evidence of these tiny strokes and counted them. "These are strokes for the most part that people didn't realize they had," Brickman says. "On an MRI, it's like a dark hole that indicates some tissue loss due to vascular injury." Vascular injury refers to blood vessel damage.

To evaluate shrinkage, the researchers identified the hippocampus on the MRI and manually measured it.

Silent strokes were found in 174 people.

Those who had the silent strokes scored worse on memory tests than did those who did not.

The silent strokes also were linked with a smaller hippocampus size. Smaller hippocampus size, by itself, was also linked with poorer memory.

But the link between stroke and memory loss was found regardless of the size of the hippocampus.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Brickman serves as a consultant for ProPhase LLC, a firm involved in applied measurement for clinical and pharmaceutical research. Other co-authors report serving as consultants for Pfizer, Merck Serono, GlaxoSmithKline, and other drug companies.

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