Brain scans find fluid filled spaces linked with cognitive decline

27 January 2021

Researchers in Australia have found that fluid-filled structures between blood vessels and the brain called perivascular spaces are associated with worsening memory and thinking. The journal, Neurology reports the results today (Wednesday 27 January).

What did the researchers look for?

The Australian research team worked with 451 research volunteers in the Sydney Memory and Ageing study.

Volunteers aged between 72 and 90 had a brain MRI scan every two years, for six years.

They also completed several tests designed to measure their memory and thinking at the same time points.

Perivascular spaces

Perivascular spaces are fluid-filled structures found throughout the brain.

They surround blood vessels and can become enlarged. In this study the researchers looked at the volunteers’ MRI scans to see whether enlarged perivascular spaces in two brain regions, the basal ganglia and the centrum semiovale, were linked with memory and thinking changes.

What did they find?

They classified 157 people with the highest number of enlarged perivascular spaces in either region in the brain as severe cases. 32 participants had enlarged perivascular spaces in both brain regions and these people were almost three times more likely to develop dementia during the study than people with fewer or no enlarged spaces.

Our expert view:

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“The brain is a precious organ, and while our skulls protect it from damage, they also make the brain difficult to study. Brain scans are a powerful tool for researching and helping diagnose the diseases that cause dementia. Not only can MRI scans aid a dementia diagnosis, but they help researchers understand more about the physical brain changes leading to worsening memory and thinking.

“This research does not prove that enlarged perivascular spaces causes thinking and memory problems and only shows an association. Future research will need to investigate whether these spaces could be a useful marker of future cognitive decline and determining the biological underpinnings of this association could add to our understanding of the complex causes of memory and thinking problems and dementia.

“Findings like this open up new avenues that researchers must go on to explore. With a desperate lack of effective treatments that can stop cognitive decline and the development of dementia, it is vital that researchers follow up every promising new lead. Unless the government urgently delivers on its promise to double its funding for dementia research, we are at risk of undoing all the progress we’ve made and this is unacceptable. You can sign Alzheimer’s Research UK’s petition calling on government to keep its promise on dementia research at alzres.uk/sign-our-petition