What is cerebral atrophy?
Cerebral atrophy refers to the progressive loss of brain cells over time. Atrophy refers to a decreased size or wasting away of any part of the body. Cerebral atrophy can happen in either the entire brain or in just one part of the brain and can lead to decreased brain mass and loss of neurological function. The symptoms of cerebral atrophy depend on the cause and location of cell death.
Cerebral atrophy can occur due to brain injury, as in the case of stroke, or to a neurological disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, or Huntington’s disease. Infections of the brain can also lead to the death of brain cells and cerebral atrophy.
Symptoms of cerebral atrophy include dementia, seizures, loss of motor control, and difficulty with speaking, comprehension or reading. Dementia, which is marked by memory loss and an inability to perform daily activities, may be mild or severe and may worsen with increasing atrophy. Seizures can range from absence seizures (sudden loss of responsiveness) to convulsive seizures.
Depending on the underlying cause, cerebral atrophy may progress very slowly or very rapidly. Cerebral atrophy is life threatening, and there is no known cure. Treatment for cerebral atrophy focuses on treating the symptoms and complications of the disease. In cases in which cerebral atrophy is due to an infection, treatment of the infection may stop the symptoms of atrophy from worsening.
Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms of cerebral atrophy, such as seizures or loss of consciousness.
Seek prompt medical care for any symptoms of cerebral atrophy that interfere with daily life, such as changes in responsiveness and difficulty with speaking, vision or movement.
What are the symptoms of cerebral atrophy?
Symptoms of cerebral atrophy can be generalized (affecting the whole brain) or localized (affecting only one part of the brain or one function). Generalized symptoms include symptoms of dementia, such as problems with memory or changes in personality. Localized symptoms include seizures and problems with speech, vision or movement.
Generalized symptoms of cerebral atrophy
Generalized symptoms of cerebral atrophy arise from loss of brain cells throughout the brain. You may experience cerebral atrophy symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:
Changes in mood, personality or behavior
Difficulty with judgment or abstract thinking
Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading
Localized symptoms of cerebral atrophy
If cerebral atrophy arises from loss of brain cells in a specific area of the brain, you may have localized symptoms including:
Blurred or double vision
Difficulty producing or understanding speech (aphasia)
Impaired balance and coordination
Localized weakness, loss of sensation, or paralysis
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, cerebral atrophy can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Being a danger to oneself or others, including behavior that is threatening, irrational or suicidal
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
What causes cerebral atrophy?
Cerebral atrophy can arise from many diseases of the brain, injury to the brain, or infection of the brain.
Injury causes of cerebral atrophy
Death of brain cells may occur as a result of injury to the brain including:
- Traumatic brain injury
Diseases that may cause cerebral atrophy
Cerebral atrophy may also occur due a variety of genetic or developmental disorders including:
Cerebral palsy (group of disorders affecting movement, balance, and posture)
Huntington’s disease (genetic disorder causing degeneration of nerve cells in the brain)
Leukodystrophysies (diseases damaging the protective material around nerve cells)
Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)
Pick’s disease (form of dementia that affects only certain areas of the brain)
Infectious causes of cerebral atrophy
Cerebral atrophy can also result from infection of the brain including:
Syphilis (sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria)
What are the risk factors for cerebral atrophy?
A number of factors increase the risk of developing cerebral atrophy. Not all people with risk factors will get cerebral atrophy. Risk factors for cerebral atrophy include:
Family history of Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or similar neurological disorders
Family history of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis
Reducing your risk of cerebral atrophy
While cerebral atrophy is not necessarily preventable, a healthy lifestyle may help slow the progression of atrophy and reduce the severity of symptoms. Healthy lifestyle factors that may reduce your chance of severe cerebral atrophy include:
Controlling blood pressure
Eating a healthy, balanced diet, including omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidant fruits and vegetables
Staying mentally, physically and socially active
How is cerebral atrophy treated?
There is no cure for cerebral atrophy. Once brain cells have been lost, the damage is permanent. Treatment for cerebral atrophy focuses on treating the symptoms and complications of cerebral atrophy.
Treatment for dementia and loss-of-function symptoms of cerebral atrophy
Treatments for dementia symptoms of cerebral atrophy include medications and nonmedication therapies including:
Medications that change the amount of chemicals that control brain signaling or treat symptoms of cognitive impairment, sometimes used in Alzheimer’s disease
Physical therapy to improve function and ability to perform daily activities
Psychological counseling and support
Treatment for other symptoms of cerebral atrophy
Other symptoms of cerebral atrophy may be treated medicinally or with therapy as well including:
Anticonvulsive medication to stop seizures
Cognitive or behavioral therapy to improve quality of life
Physical therapy to slow loss of muscle control
Speech therapy to decrease the impact of aphasia (impaired speech and comprehension)
Treatment for the underlying infection or injury leading to cerebral atrophy
What you can do to improve your cerebral atrophy
The best way to improve symptoms of cerebral atrophy or slow the progression of cerebral atrophy is to lead an active, healthy lifestyle including:
Eating a balanced diet rich in antioxidant fruits and vegetables
Engaging in regular exercise
Increasing mental activity
Some complementary treatments may help some people in their efforts to deal with cerebral atrophy. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for full medical care.
Complementary treatments may include:
Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
What are the potential complications of cerebral atrophy?
Complications of untreated or poorly controlled cerebral atrophy can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of cerebral atrophy include:
Inability to participate normally in activities
Loss of independence
- Withdrawal or depression