The degeneration of a small, wishbone-shaped structure deep inside the brain may provide the earliest clues to future cognitive decline, long before healthy older people exhibit clinical symptoms of memory loss or dementia, a study by researchers with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center has found.
The longitudinal study found that the only discernible brain differences between normal people who later developed cognitive impairment and those who did not were changes in their fornix, an organ that carries messages to and from the hippocampus, and that has long been known to play a role in memory.
“This could be a very early and useful marker for future incipient decline,” said Evan Fletcher, the study’s lead author and a project scientist with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“Our results suggest that fornix variables are measurable brain factors that precede the earliest clinically relevant deterioration of cognitive function among cognitively normal elderly individuals,” Fletcher said.
The research is published online in JAMA Neurology.
Hippocampal atrophy occurs in the later stages of cognitive decline and is one of the most studied changes associated with the Alzheimer’s disease process. However, changes to the fornix and other regions of the brain structurally connected to the hippocampus have not been as closely examined. The study found that degeneration of the fornix in relation to cognition was detectable even earlier than changes in the hippocampus.
“Although hippocampal measures have been studied much more deeply in relation to cognitive decline, our direct comparison between fornix and hippocampus measures suggests that fornix properties have a superior ability to identify incipient cognitive decline among healthy individuals,” Fletcher said.