Brain Atrophy

Brain atrophy (cerebral atrophy) is a loss of neurons and connections between neurons. Different conditions cause brain atrophy, including cerebral palsy, dementia and infectious diseases. Symptoms and severity of brain atrophy depend on the specific disease and location of damage. Treatment involves managing the underlying disorder.

Overview

What is brain atrophy?

People with brain atrophy, also called cerebral atrophy, lose brain cells (neurons), and connections between their brain cells and brain volume often decreases. This loss can lead to problems with thinking, memory and performing everyday tasks. The greater the loss, the more impairment someone has.

There are two types of brain atrophy:

  • Focal: Damage occurs in one area of your brain.
  • Generalized: Damage expands to your entire brain.
Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Is brain atrophy a normal part of aging?

People lose some brain cells as they get older, and brain volume decreases as well, but healthcare providers use the term “brain atrophy” when a person has more brain changes than expected for age. Here, the damage happens faster than the typical aging process.

Who is at risk for brain atrophy?

Some factors may increase your chances of developing brain atrophy, such as:

  • Advanced age.
  • Family history of genetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease.
  • Family history of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Head or brain injury.
  • Heavy drinking (alcohol use disorder).
  • Smoking.
Advertisement

Does brain atrophy lead to dementia?

There’s a connection between brain atrophy and dementia. Specifically, dementia causes extreme brain atrophy. Dementia is a general term that describes severe thinking problems that interfere with daily life.

The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Does brain atrophy cause aphasia?

People with aphasia (speaking and language problems) as part of an underlying neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s disease often have brain atrophy as well. Here, damage occurs in areas responsible for producing and processing language. This disorder ranges in severity. Some people have trouble recalling the correct name for people, places and things. Others are completely unable to communicate.

Advertisement

Symptoms and Causes

What causes brain atrophy?

Many different disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, infectious diseases and severe injuries can cause brain atrophy, including:

What are the symptoms of brain atrophy?

Symptoms of brain atrophy vary depending on which specific part of your brain is damaged. Symptoms also range from mild to severe.

In general, brain atrophy happens with various conditions, and symptoms can vary to include:

Aphasia

  • Difficulty speaking.
  • Difficulty writing.
  • Inability to understand the meaning of words.

Dementia

  • Hallucinations.
  • Loss of language.
  • Memory problems.
  • Mood and personality changes.
  • Poor judgment.

Seizures

  • Bitter or metallic taste.
  • Convulsions.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Spasms.
  • Teeth clenching.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is brain atrophy diagnosed?

To diagnose brain atrophy and any underlying condition, your healthcare provider will usually ask about your:

  • Symptoms. When did they first start? How often do they occur? Have they gotten worse over time?
  • Medical history.
  • Family history of health conditions.

Your healthcare provider will also use different tests to evaluate your brain function. Tests might look at:

  • Coordination.
  • Eye movement.
  • Language.
  • Memory.
  • Problem-solving abilities.

Does brain atrophy show on MRI?

Yes, brain atrophy can show up on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a test that creates pictures of your brain.

A computed tomography (CT) scan can also detect brain atrophy. But an MRI is more sensitive in revealing damage that occurs in some specific regions area of your brain (focal damage).

Management and Treatment

What is the treatment for brain atrophy?

There’s no single treatment for brain atrophy, as it can be a sign of one or more diseases. Rather, healthcare providers tailor treatment to help you manage the symptoms of the underlying condition. Your treatment plan may often include a combination of:

  • Medication.
  • Physical and occupational therapy.
  • Counseling.
  • Speech therapy.
  • Surgery, in some cases.

If you have a stroke, you’ll receive emergency care, such as clot-dissolving medication, as well as stroke rehabilitation.

Prevention

How can I prevent brain atrophy?

Some degree of brain volume change is expected with normal aging. But adopting healthy habits may reduce some risk factors that lead to brain shrinkage and help you improve your day-to-day life:

  • Eat a nutrient-rich, low-cholesterol diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.
  • Aim for daily aerobic exercise.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Find healthy ways to manage stress, which has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
  • Take medication to lower high blood pressure, high cholesterol and control diabetes.
  • Quit smoking by joining a support group or trying one-on-one counseling.
  • Reduce alcohol use.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about managing risk factors if you’re at high risk.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for brain atrophy?

Brain atrophy tends to be permanent. You can’t reverse the damage once it’s happened. But by working with your healthcare providers, you can aim to manage the underlying condition and potentially compensate for some of the symptoms, so you can live a fuller life.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

If you’re experiencing problems with thinking, memory and mood, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Because these are general symptoms, it’s important to have a comprehensive evaluation to identify the specific condition.

For most conditions causing brain atrophy, getting treatment early can help reduce symptoms and minimize their impact on your life.

When should I go to the ER?

Brain atrophy can become dangerous when it causes a stroke. If these symptoms start suddenly, you may be having a stroke and should call 911 right away:

Do I need emergency help for a seizure?

Typically, seizures don’t require emergency medical care. But if one or more of these symptoms happens, you’ll need to go to the hospital:

  • The seizure lasts more than five minutes.
  • The seizure occurs in water.
  • This is your first seizure.
  • You’re injured during the seizure.
  • You’re struggling to breathe or wake up.
  • You have a second seizure following the first one.
  • You have a health condition, such as diabetes or heart disease.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Brain atrophy (cerebral atrophy) happens when an area of your brain, or your entire brain, loses neurons. Many conditions cause brain atrophy, so the severity of damage can vary. Some people have mild memory loss, while others have trouble talking and reading. Seeing your healthcare provider can help you get the correct diagnosis and create a treatment plan that reduces symptoms and improves your day-to-day life.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/10/2022.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Ad
Appointments 866.588.2264