It is the loss of brain cells called neurons. It also destroys the connections that help cells communicate.
It can be the result of many different diseases that damage the brain, including strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.
As we age, some brain cells are naturally lost, but this is a slow process.
Brain atrophy associated with disease or injury occurs more quickly and is more damaging.
This atrophy can affect different parts of the brain:
- Focal atrophy: affects cells in certain areas of the brain and causes a loss of function in those specific areas.
- Generalized atrophy : affects cells throughout the brain.
Life expectancy among patients with cerebral atrophy can be influenced by the condition that caused the brain to contract:
- People with Alzheimer’s disease live an average of four to eight years after their diagnosis.
- People with multiple sclerosis can have a near-normal life expectancy if their condition is treated effectively.
Symptoms of brain atrophy vary depending on the region or regions of the brain affected:
- Dementia is the loss of memory, learning, abstract thinking, and executive functions, such as planning and organizing.
- Seizures are waves of abnormal electrical activity in the brain that cause repetitive movements, seizures, and sometimes loss of consciousness.
- Aphasias involve problems speaking and understanding language.
Injury, disease, and infection can damage brain cells and cause atrophy.
Stroke – occurs when blood flow to part of the brain is cut off. Without an oxygen-rich blood supply, neurons in the area die.
Functions controlled by those areas of the brain, including movement and speech, are lost.
Traumatic brain injury: This is damage to the brain that can be caused by a fall, a car accident, or another blow to the head.
Diseases and disorders
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia: These are conditions in which brain cells become progressively damaged and lose the ability to communicate with each other.
They cause a loss of memory and thinking ability severe enough to be life-altering.
Alzheimer’s disease, which usually begins after age 60, is the leading cause of dementia. It is responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all cases.
Cerebral palsy: is a movement disorder caused by abnormal development of the brain in the womb.
It causes lack of muscle coordination, difficulty walking, and other movement disorders.
Huntington’s disease: it is an inherited disease that progressively damages neurons. The disease usually begins in mid-life.
Over time, it affects a person’s mental and physical abilities which can lead to severe depression and chorea (involuntary dance-like movements throughout the body).
Leukodystrophies: These are a group of rare inherited disorders that damage the myelin sheath, a protective layer that surrounds nerve cells.
Generally, beginning in childhood, it can cause problems with memory, movement, behavior, vision, and hearing.
Multiple sclerosis – usually begins in adulthood and affects women more often than men.
It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the protective coating around nerve cells.
Over time, nerve cells become damaged, as a result, problems with sensation, movement, and coordination can occur.
However, like other observed diseases, it can also lead to dementia and brain atrophy.
AIDS: is a disease caused by the HIV virus, which attacks the body’s immune system.
Although the virus does not attack neurons directly, it damages the connections between them through the proteins and other substances it releases.
AIDS-associated toxoplasmosis can also damage neurons in the brain.
Encephalitis: refers to an inflammation of the brain. It is most often caused by herpes simplex, but other viruses such as West Nile or Zika can also cause it.
Viruses damage neurons and cause symptoms such as confusion, seizures, and paralysis. An autoimmune condition can also cause encephalitis.
Neurosyphilis: is a disease that damages the brain and its protective covering. It can occur in people with the sexually transmitted disease syphilis and they do not receive full treatment.
Some of these conditions, such as neurosyphilis, AIDS, and traumatic brain injury, can be prevented.
Practicing safe sex using condoms can prevent syphilis and HIV infections.
Wearing your seat belt in the car and wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle or motorcycle can help prevent brain injury.
Other conditions, such as Huntington’s disease, leukodystrophies, and multiple sclerosis, cannot be prevented.
Each condition that causes brain atrophy is treated differently:
Stroke: This is treated with drugs such as tissue plasminogen activator, which dissolves the clot to restore blood flow to the brain.
Surgery can also remove a blood clot or repair a damaged blood vessel.
Anticoagulants and blood pressure-lowering medications can help prevent another stroke.
Traumatic brain injury: can be treated with surgery that prevents further damage to brain cells.
Multiple sclerosis – Often treated with disease-modifying medications such as ocrelizumab, glatiramer acetate, and fingolimod.
These drugs help prevent attacks by the immune system that damage nerve cells.
AIDS and certain forms of encephalitis – These are treated with antiviral drugs. Steroids and special antibody drugs can treat autoimmune encephalitis.
Syphilis: It is treated with antibiotics that help prevent nerve cell damage and other complications of the disease.
There is no real treatment or cure for brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, cerebral palsy, Huntington’s disease, or leukodystrophies.
However, some medications can alleviate the symptoms of these conditions but not attack their causes.
The diagnostic process depends on the condition established by a doctor. Usually it will involve a physical exam followed by certain tests.
Brain atrophy will show up on brain images as the following:
- Computed tomography (CT) uses X-ray images from different angles to create detailed images of your brain.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) creates images of the brain on film after exposing the brain to a brief magnetic field.
The outlook depends on what condition caused the brain atrophy. Some conditions, such as stroke, encephalitis, multiple sclerosis, or AIDS, are manageable with treatment.
Brain atrophy can be slowed or stopped in some situations.
Others, like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease, will progressively worsen symptoms and brain atrophy over time.
A doctor should be consulted about the cause of brain atrophy, possible treatments, and the outlook you can expect.