Neurology: Better verbal memory in women than men in MCI despite similar levels of hippocampal atrophy
Researchers in the US have found that women with mild memory and thinking difficulties have better verbal memory skills than men. The research was published in the journal Neurology on 16 March 2016.
The team followed 1,308 people, with an average age of 73. Along with 379 healthy people, 235 people had Alzheimer’s disease and 694 people had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition associated with mild memory and thinking difficulties. MCI can be caused by many different factors, including medical conditions such as vitamin deficiencies and depression, but some people go on to develop dementia.
The volunteers completed a series of tests to assess memory and thinking skills, including verbal memory. Researchers also carried out MRI scans, to study brain structure. They were particularly interested in the hippocampi – the parts of the brain responsible for short term memory formation.
When the researchers looked at hippocampus size, they found that women had larger hippocampi relative to their overall brain volume, compared to men. They also found that women with moderate to large hippocampi were better at recalling a list of words than men with similar hippocampus size. When the team looked specifically at people with MCI, they found that women outperformed men on the verbal memory tests, even when there was more damage to this area of the brain. However, they did not see the same differences between men and women in those who had Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“There are many different factors that influence a person’s memory and thinking skills, and how they change with age. This study suggests that women with mild memory and thinking difficulties outperform men when it comes to verbal memory skills, even when parts of their brains are more damaged. This study is a snapshot in time and it would be interesting to follow the volunteers over a longer period of time, to understand how changes in verbal memory relate to underlying changes in brain biology.
“We know that dementia is the biggest killer of women in the UK, and it’s interesting that some symptoms in the earliest stages of the condition may be delayed in women compared to men. It’s important to understand how damage in the brain relates to symptoms and whether subtle differences between women and men can be used to improve diagnosis.”