Apathy Could Indicate Brain Changes

Among older people without depression, apathy may be an indicator of significant brain changes, according to new research.

 “Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes,” said Lenore J. Launer, PhD, with the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Apathy symptoms are common in older people without dementia. And the fact that participants in our study had apathy without depression should turn our attention to how apathy alone could indicate brain disease.”

For the study, Launer’s team used brain volume as a measure of accelerated brain aging. Such losses occur during normal aging, but larger amounts of brain volume loss could indicate brain diseases.

A total of 4,354 people without dementia and with an average age of 76 underwent an MRI scan. They were also asked questions that measure apathy symptoms: lack of interest, lack of emotion, dropping activities and interests, preferring to stay at home and having a lack of energy.

 The study found that people with two or more apathy symptoms had 1.4 percent smaller gray matter volume and 1.6 percent less white matter volume compared to those who had fewer than two symptoms. Gray matter is where learning occurs and memories are stored, while white matter connects different parts of the brain. Excluding people with depression symptoms did not change the results. 

“If these findings are confirmed, identifying people with apathy earlier may be one way to target an at-risk group,” Launer said.

The study was published in the journal Neurology.


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