Cerebral atrophy

Dr Zishan Sheikh et al.

Cerebral atrophy is the morphological presentation of brain parenchymal volume loss that is frequently seen on cross sectional imaging. Rather than being a primary diagnosis, it is the common endpoint for range disease processes that affect the central nervous system. Though often no identifiable cause is found, certain patterns of atrophy can be helpful in certain clinical scenarios, most notably in neurodegenerative diseases.

It is a common finding in the elderly population, and so there is some controversy as to when imaging changes are labelled as cerebral atrophy, rather than simply "involutional" or "age related" when the patient has normal cognition.

As cerebral atrophy is simply the compensatory enlargement of the CSF spaces from reducing brain parenchymal volume, it is akin to hydrocephalus ex vacuo. However, the later term is usually reserved when referring to focal volume loss in the brain following a pathological insult (i.e. haemorrhage) rather than the often idiopathic more generalised changes seen with age. 

As it is not a distinct disease entity, there is no uniform mode of presentation and the finding of atrophy is often incidental when imaging is taken for some other indication.

Cognitive dysfunction and acute confusion are common reasons patients with atrophy may undergo imaging.

The underlying pathological causes can be broadly distinguished based on whether the atrophy is focal or generalised:

CT and MRI are equally able to demonstrate cortical atrophy, but MRI is more sensitive in detecting focal atrophic changes in the nuclei. Characteristic features include prominent cerebral sulci (i.e. cortical atrophy) and ventriculomegaly (i.e. central atrophy) without bulging of the third ventricular recesses. It can be difficult to distinguish this from the changes seen in normal pressure hydrocephalus. 

Certain important patterns of cerebral atrophy that are more specific include:

  • severe frontal and anterior temporal
    • Pick disease
  • head of caudate nuclei
    • Huntington disease
  • posterior parietal and frontal 
    • corticobasal degeneration
  • atrophy of tectum, globus pallidus, and frontal lobes
    • progressive supranuclear palsy
  • generalised with atrophy of substantia nigra
    • Parkinson disease
  • severe hippocampal atrophy
    • Alzheimer dementia
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Article information

rID: 39870
Section: Gamuts
Tag: refs
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • cortical atrophy
  • Atrophy of the brain
  • Brain atrophy
  • Generalised cerebral atrophy

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Cases and figures

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    Case 1: frontotemporal lobar degeneration
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