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Waning Emotion May Mean Brain Shrinkage

Update Date: Apr 16, 2014 07:05 PM EDT
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Out of the 79 brains examined, 76 of them, or 96 percent, had signs of a degenerative disease. (Photo : flamephoenix1991Flickr)

Feeling less emotional may indicate a shrinking brain, according to a new study.

New research reveals smaller brain volumes in older people who are apathetic but not depressed.

The latest study defined apathy as having less interest or emotion.

The latest study looked at brain volumes to assess accelerate brain aging. Researchers explain that brain volume decreases during normal aging. However, greater brain volume loss could indicate brain disease.

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"Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes," researcher Dr. Lenore J. Launer, PhD, with the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, said in a news release. "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."

The study involved 4,354 people without dementia with an average age of 76 who underwent an MRI scan. Participants were asked questions that evaluate apathy symptoms, including lack of interest, lack of emotion, dropping activities and interests, preferring to stay at home and experiencing fatigue.

The findings reveal 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 less than two symptoms of apathy. Researchers explain that gray matter helps the brain learn and store memories whereas white matter acts as communication cables that connect different parts of the brain.

The findings held true even after accounting for those who had depression.

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

The findings were published April 16 in the online issue of Neurology®.

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