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Advanced MRI brain scan may help predict stroke-related dementia

September 12, 2019

DALLAS, Sept. 12, 2019 -- An advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scan analysis in patients with stroke-related, small vessel disease helped predict problems with thinking, memory and even dementia, according to new research published in Stroke, a journal of the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association.

When a stroke or other disease damages tiny blood vessels in the brain, the condition is known as small vessel disease. This condition is the most common cause of thinking problems (planning, organizing information and processing speed) and can even lead to dementia. Although early treatment could help patients at risk, no effective test is available to identify them.

This study evaluated the accuracy of a new MRI analysis technique using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), in predicting thinking problems and dementia related to small vessel disease. A single scan measured the brain in fine detail to reveal damaged areas. By comparing these images to a healthy person's, researchers were able to classify the brain into areas of healthy versus damaged tissue.

Results showed that participants with the most brain damage were much more likely to develop thinking problems. The analysis also helped predict three-fourths of the dementia cases that occurred during the study.

"We have developed a useful tool for monitoring patients at risk of developing dementia and could target those who need early treatment," said senior author Rebecca A. Charlton, Ph.D., department of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, in the United Kingdom.

The study included 99 patients with small vessel disease caused by ischemic stroke, a type of stroke that blocks the blood vessels deep within the brain. Slightly more than one-third were female, average age 68, and most were Caucasian. All participants were enrolled in the St George's Cognition and Neuroimaging in Stroke (SCANS) study from 2007 to 2015 in London.

Participants received the MRI scans annually for three years and thinking tests annually for five years. Eighteen participants developed dementia during the study, with an average time to onset of approximately three years and four months.

This advanced MRI analysis offers a highly accurate and sensitive marker of small vessel disease severity in a single measure that can be used to detect who will and will not go on the develop dementia in a five-year period, noted Charlton.

The healthy brain scans used for comparison were from one individual and may not represent the true range of all healthy brains. In addition, the study's relatively small number of participants all had small vessel disease resulting from one type of stroke, so the results may not apply to people with different forms of the disease.
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Co-authors are Owen A. Williams, Ph.D.; Eva A. Zeestraten, Ph.D.; Philip Benjamin, Ph.D.; Christian Lambert, Ph.D.; Andrew J. Lawrence, Ph.D.; Andrew D. Mackinnon, M.D.; Robin G. Morris, Ph.D.; Hugh S. Markus, Ph.D.; and Thomas R. Barrick, Ph.D. Author disclosures are on the manuscript.

The UK Charity Research into Aging, Alzheimer's Research UK, and the English National Institute for Health Research funded the study. The Wellcome Trust, the English National Institute of Health Research, and the Clinical Stroke Research Network supported the SCANS research study.

Additional Resources:

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After Sept. 12, view the manuscript online.

AHA News Release: Cognitive impairment risk increased in hypertensive patients with progressive cerebral small vessel disease

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About the American Stroke Association

The American Stroke Association is devoted to saving people from stroke -- the No. 2 cause of death in the world and a leading cause of serious disability. We team with millions of volunteers to fund innovative research, fight for stronger public health policies and provide lifesaving tools and information to prevent and treat stroke. The Dallas-based association officially launched in 1998 as a division of the American Heart Association. To learn more or to get involved, call 1-888-4STROKE or visit StrokeAssociation.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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