A new study has shown older people without dementia who show signs of apathy may have smaller brain volumes. The study is published online on Wednesday 16 April in the journal Neurology.
Led by doctors at the University Medical Center Utrecht, the study looked at 4,354 people in their 70s who did not have dementia. Each participant had an MRI scan to measure brain volume, and answered a series of questions designed to look for signs of apathy. People with apathy commonly have a lack of interest in the world around them, and signs of apathy can include stopping taking part in normal activities, showing little emotion and having a lack of energy.
They found that those people with two or more signs of apathy tended to have smaller brain volumes than those with fewer apathy symptoms. On average, these people had 1.4% less grey matter – which contains nerve cells and makes up the main part of the brain – and 1.6% less white matter – the brain’s ‘wiring’. Loss of grey and white matter can be a sign of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, and the researchers suggest that looking for signs of apathy in older people may help identify people at risk of these diseases.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“This research suggests a link between apathy and some of the brain changes associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s, but the changes seen here are very subtle. We don’t know whether the people in this study had dementia, and further research in this group is needed to know whether tests for apathy could help identify people at risk of the condition.
“Symptoms of apathy are common in dementia as well as depression, and people with dementia are sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as having depression early on. Building a better understanding of some of the less well-recognised symptoms of dementia, such as apathy, could inform our efforts to develop better treatments for the condition.”