Anxiety associated with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s

November 30, 2020

A study conducted by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), US, has found an association between anxiety and an increased rate of progression from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to the much more debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.

Feelings of apprehension and fear are oft observed in those suffering from MCI; according to MUSC Professor of Radiology, Dr. Maria Vittoria Spampinato, volume loss in certain areas of the brain can predict progression of MCI to Alzheimer’s. “In this study, we wanted to see if anxiety had an effect on brain structure, or if the effect of anxiety was independent from brain structure in favoring the progression of disease,” Dr. Spampinato said.

For the study, researchers studied the MRI scans of a group of 339 patients diagnosed with MCI/Alzheimer’s so as to determine the baseline volumes of the two brain regions important for memory formation, the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex. The patients were also tested for the presence of the APOE ε4 allele, which is associated with an earlier age of onset of the Alzheimer’s. Finally, established clinical surveys were used to measure anxiety.

The researchers found that patients who progressed to Alzheimer’s had lower volumes of hippocampus and entorhinal cortex compared to patients who didn’t, and that this group had a greater frequency of the APOE ε4 allele. The researchers also found that anxiety was associated with cognitive decline independently of these other factors.

“Mild cognitive impairment patients with anxiety symptoms developed Alzheimer’s disease faster than individuals without anxiety, independently of whether they had a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease or brain volume loss,” summarised Jenny L. Ulber, a medical student at MUSC.

However, Dr. Spampinato argues the need to better understand the association between anxiety disorders and cognitive decline, “We don’t know yet if the anxiety is a symptom – in other words, their memory is getting worse and they become anxious – or if anxiety contributes to cognitive decline.

“If we were able in the future to find that anxiety is actually causing progression, then we should more aggressively screen for anxiety disorders in the elderly.”

The researchers plan to look at follow-up scans to see if anxiety plays a role on the speed of brain damage progression and will closely examine whether gender differences have an impact on the association between anxiety and cognitive decline.

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Category: Education, Features

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