Cerebral Atrophy

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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

  • Disorientation

  • Learning impairments

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

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Seizure

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

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:

Diseases that may cause cerebral atrophy

Cerebral atrophy may also occur due a variety of genetic or developmental disorders including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease

  • Cerebral palsy (group of disorders affecting movement, balance, and posture)

  • Dementia

  • 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:

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:

  • Advanced age

  • Brain injury

  • Family history of Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or similar neurological disorders

  • Family history of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis

  • Head injury

 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

Complementary treatments

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:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

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
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. NINDS cerebral atrophy information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/cerebral_atrophy/cerebral_atrophy.htm.
  2. Alzheimer's disease. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001767/.
  3. Buchman AS, Boyle PA, Yu L, et al. Total daily physical activity and the risk of AD and cognitive decline in older adults. Neurology 2012; 78:1323.