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What is Brain Atrophy?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Brain atrophy, more properly known as cerebral atrophy, is a condition in which cells in the brain are lost, or the connections between them are damaged. The prognosis for patients with this condition varies, depending on the type of atrophy, the location, and the cause. Often, declines in brain function emerge, and the patient will grow progressively worse over time as a result of the damage to the brain.

A number of conditions involving the brain can lead to brain atrophy, including epilepsy, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and Huntington's disease. Brain atrophy has also been observed in patients with chronic wasting, also known as cachexia, with brain atrophy being particularly common in AIDS patients who develop cachexia.

Like other atrophies, brain atrophy involves loss of tissue. In the brain, losing neurons is highly undesirable, as loss of brain tissue can cause a variety of neurological and cognitive problems. Patients with brain atrophy may develop seizures, dementia, and aphasias. In focal cerebral atrophy, the damage is concentrated on a particular area of the brain, which means that the functions of that area of the brain can become impaired. Generalized brain atrophy involves the whole brain, and may be associated with a range of problems.

This condition can usually be identified in a medical imaging study of the brain such as an MRI, which can reveal structural changes in the brain. Functional scans of the brain may reveal decreased brain activity caused by brain atrophy. Patients at risk for this condition may have such scans recommended on a periodic basis for their physicians to monitor for changes in brain structure or function. People who experience symptoms associated with cerebral atrophy may also undergo such scans to assist with diagnosis.

Treatment for brain atrophy is focused on keeping the patient comfortable, preventing further damage if possible, and providing the patient with tools to manage the decline in brain function. Physical therapy may be used to teach patients various skills to assist them in coping with decreased physical abilities, for example, and patients may also do exercises to bolster mental acuity. Regular neurological exams are also a routine part of treatment, to monitor the patient's progress. In patients who experience a radical decline, placement in an assisted living facility may be considered if caregivers are not able to provide the support the patient requires as a result of the damage caused by brain atrophy.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon999192 — On Nov 13, 2017

My daughter is only 18 months old and was born with brain atrophy, bilateral leg weakness and hypotonia. She has never had severe trauma either. The doctors don't have many answers for me, only that she may never walk or talk. I still have faith and hope that she will reach her milestones. She receives physical and occupational therapy. Anyone else have kids or infants with brain atrophy not caused by trauma?

By anon997075 — On Nov 13, 2016

Is there any preventative things or practical healing things people can do to either avoid atrophy or a worsening of the condition for those with symptoms? I know there are the obvious things like alcohol in moderation and avoiding drugs, exercise and fresh air, good diet with omega fats and proper hydration, regular sleep cycle and brain exercising/mentally challenging puzzles etc. If anyone else has any suggestions would be interested to know.

By anon997074 — On Nov 13, 2016

I had two Grand Mal seizures quite close together, and the second left me unconscious for 5 hours. When I awoke, my memory was severely impaired and my back was damaged so bad I couldn't walk, so I had to go to hospital. I had MRI scans and they said there was no damage to my brain, but I continued to experience memory difficulties and cognitive impairment. Two years on, my memory has improved significantly, but I have lost a lot of my cognitive ability I had before the seizures. I hope it returns, maybe it just takes time.

By anon996360 — On Aug 17, 2016

About three years ago I had a mental breakdown. I have been struggling with major depression and chronic back pain for decades. When they brought me by ambulance to the hospital, I was told that I had a Grand Mal seizure.

After a recent MRI, I am now told that I have brain atrophy. I had no idea that it caused all the conditions I read about. I am scheduled to see my neurologist for more information soon. This is very scary, as I'm sure it is to all of you. I really had no idea.

By GeorgiaGyrl5 — On Jan 07, 2015

@anon354074 -- In your post (post 29) you discussed your mother, her back pain, and the medication she was prescribed for it. You state that "She was on methadone for back pain for years. That is a medication that is given to heroin addicts. It shouldn't have been given to my mom. It caused brain damage." I don't know where you got your information from, but you are doing great damage by spreading misinformation about a medication that already has a bad reputation, and does not need your help.

You may also be causing people who take methadone for pain relief to have second thoughts about doing so, which can cause severe distress if they were to stop taking it. Methadone is not just a drug for addicts. It is also used as a painkiller because of its narcotic properties; it dulls the pain, just as oxycontin or percocet does. The difference is in method of usage and dosage.

When used to kill the pain of back problems, as with your mother, the patient may be prescribed something like 5 or 10 mgs every six hours as needed for pain. If the maximum dosage were taken, it would be 40 mgs per day. The average heroin addict takes methadone once daily, and the dosage is, on average, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 - 70 mgs. (This dosage varies greatly however, depending on a great many factors.

In my personal experience, I have known someone who was taking 210 mgs once per day.) The people I have known personally who took methadone as a pain reliever only were never on more than 30 mgs, and did not always need to have that much as the methadone was quite effective for dulling the pain. Methadone also has the advantage of a patient not needing more and more as time goes on to get the same relief.

Please do not spread misinformation about a drug which, while having a tendency to be misused (as do many others) can also be quite beneficial in the relief of pain which someone would find intolerable otherwise.

By Slugger — On Jul 12, 2014

What is the normal life span for someone with mild/moderate alzheimer's disease?

By anon956178 — On Jun 12, 2014

I am a 33 year old female and I had a case of vertigo and it has lasted four months. Every time I turn to my right, I get dizzy. I had an MRI and these are the results which I don't understand. Please help.

"1 mild central and peripheral cerebral atrophy and a large 3cm mucous retention cyst partially opacifies the right maxillary sinus."

By dianerodger — On Mar 15, 2014

I have been told I have atrophy shortened in the brain for my age. Can this cause severe exhaustion? I feel drained and tired all the time.

By anon358658 — On Dec 11, 2013

Thanks for the great comments and info

I need some information, please. I'm going to marry a girl, but a genetic specialist said that because my father and her father are cousins and a couple of atrophy disorders have been observed in their grandfather's family, that there is a 3 percent risk for us to have a baby with the same disease.

A brain specialist said that some atrophy diseases can be diagnosed in the first month of pregnancy with some tests. My question is which types of this disease can be diagnosed during pregnancy?

By anon354074 — On Nov 05, 2013

My mom has had memory loss for over 10 years. She has back pain and has been on several medications in the past 15 years for that. I was not aware of what she was on or even knew that I should pay attention to what she was taking. You think that your parent knows what they are doing in managing their own health.

Her doctor at the time had her on a lot of medications for the same problem -- duplicate meds. She was on methodone for back pain for years. That is a medication that is given to heroin addicts. It shouldn't have been given to my mom. It caused brain damage. My mom started having memory loss.

The first I can remember is having trouble working kitchen appliances like can opener. She has declined in memory in the past four years from being to cook her own meals to having caregivers have to prepare them, and cut the food up like you would a toddler. This past couple of weeks she is forgetting how to go to the bathroom, and having accidents in her chair. She has caregivers during the day and I have to stay with her at night. I have an eight year old son whom I only get to see for two hours at the most after school and then I have to go to my mom's until the next morning when the caregiver arrives.

I am advising all children to pay attention to what your parents are taking, or you will have to take care of them way before their time. My mom is 63. She started having memory loss in her 40's because of damage caused by a medication that she shouldn't have been prescribed in the first place.

By anon353596 — On Oct 31, 2013

I had a traumatic brain injury over eight years ago. My neurosurgeon said that I am within the 5 percent of his patients who make a recovery as good as I have. A lot has to do with my will. And God! I wasn't as severely injured as I could have been and I wasn't willing to accept half a life. Believe me, I do have disabilities. I cannot use my right hand and I walk using a cane and have an orthotic (brace) that comes up to my right thigh. But you can make it!

The sad thing is that I have a friend who is, sadly, an alcoholic. She has no memory. And alcoholism can lead to brain atrophy. When I emailed her something about her drinking and it killing off brain cells, she responded, "Ha! Dork!" She isn't taking seriously what I have told her. I hope she does soon.

Not everyone can/will do as well as I have. But they need support. My family was and is the best and they are there for me. Be encouraging and supportive. It's not an easy road. Luckily I have been back to work for six and 1/2 years. And, more than that, I just got my book published. It's called "Live Your Life - A Journey of Discovery Before, During and After Traumatic Brain Injury". It's not just about TBI. The first half has to do with travel. My passion before my accident. The second half deals with my accident and beyond. Check it out! Theremay be a nugget of wisdom in there for you.

By lisab1230 — On Sep 28, 2013

My husband, who is 37 years old had a car accident 11 years ago. He has a traumatic brain injury. We just found out he also has atrophy and dementia. He is only 37 years old. We have two children, 10 and 8 years old. This is very difficult due to the fact that he is also delusional. I'm dealing with this better due to the fact that at least we know that there is a illness associated with his outbursst.

By anon345591 — On Aug 20, 2013

My husband, aged 61, has just been diagnosed with severe generalized brain atrophy. His doctor said "you have the brain of a 90 year old". I don't know what to think. I am scared sick.

By anon343609 — On Jul 31, 2013

My husband of 31 years has brain atrophy after having epilepsy. We still have not gotten a prognosis from any doctors. He is 57 years old and has gone downhill for a year. He just got out of the hospital yesterday. We have home health now. His balance is gone and he has to use a wheelchair. He could walk six months ago. It's so heartbreaking to watch. Our grown son lives with us and is here when I work.

About a year and a half ago, his personality changed for the worse and I knew something was wrong. He was verbally abusive, paranoid, and treated us horribly. I got him to the hospital and they got him help. They put him in a lockdown dementia unit. He has gone downhill ever since then. He is not mean now, but looks physically sick. He is supposed to go to Charlottesville, Virginia to get a diagnosis in September, but what's the point? It does not take a rocket scientist to know what's going on with him. He does have the loving support of his family, and he is not alone. It's sad to watch a loved one suffer.

By anon341931 — On Jul 16, 2013

I was diagnosed with mild generalized brain atrophy two years ago.

By anon338388 — On Jun 13, 2013

My 49 year old lifelong epileptic daughter has just been diagnosed with brain atrophy. She has frontal shrinkage. She is mentally, about six years old. Does anyone know what we should expect or encounter? How does this affect life expectancy? Thanks -- J David

By anon327233 — On Mar 26, 2013

It really hurts to know that your one and only child has brain atrophy. I don't know how to cope with it. She's only a year and a half old.

By anon317492 — On Feb 02, 2013

My mother (68 years old now) was diagnosed with cerebral atrophy five years ago. She has lost all muscle functions, speech, swallowing (totally paralyzed now) but she still smiles like an angel. She is on Peg feeding and I am her main carer. It is so hard and painful to see all the changes Mum has gone through and feeling unable to do something to stop this disease. Keep praying every day.

By anon282482 — On Jul 30, 2012

I am not a doctor, but large heads run in my family and so far I have watched a generation grow into healthy adults! I too, have a large head and I am here to write this. I am over 65 and my parents are 90.

By anon270904 — On May 24, 2012

My husband has general atrophy and has recently been told he has dementia. He has also had epilepsy for many years. He used to be a heating engineer and had his own company for many years.

A few years ago, he did a job and now we are being summoned to court. Does anyone know about this? Dementia does not come on like a cold, so surely he cannot be held responsible for making a mistake, given his condition, which was not known to us then.

By anon265847 — On May 03, 2012

My son was diagnosed with brain atrophy and he's on a vent and a g-tube. No other mri has picked this up, just this one. I feel so devastated.

By anon265145 — On Apr 30, 2012

I have just recently found out I have brain atrophy due to having a seizure. I am 38 years old.

By anon261396 — On Apr 16, 2012

I have brain atrophy. I did have it when I was born. I feel OK anyway about my living with it. I am so used to having it. I am 48 years old now.

One big problem though, is that people think automatically that someone like me is stupid, which I am not. My problems are that I can't use my left arm and hand and one foot also is not as it should be.

I get tired a lot and also I get seizures often. I would like to say this: that pregnant women who drink alcohol don't realize that this might happen to their child. Being born disabled isn't fun at all. Even though it is possible to cope with it, and having a rather nice life anyway, I would rather have been born healthy.

By anon257810 — On Mar 28, 2012

My mom was just diagnosed with brain atrophy. I am very much worried if she can recover. She's too old.

By anon252504 — On Mar 05, 2012

I have been noticing my head has been unable to sink in water when lying on my back in the bathtub. My head always sank over my nose when I relaxed. Now I'm unable to go below my ears. I've cut my hair short and have gained no weight. I am having more headaches and eye vision is getting worse. I am 64 years old and in good health so far.

By anon236668 — On Dec 24, 2011

I just read that bipolar can cause this especially in midlife. I am now 46 and I understand why one of the things I enjoyed doing most in life reading isn't something I can do anymore I read a page and can't go on to the next page because I forget what I just read. I'm scared to death of being put somewhere in a home and always have been. Wow, this just increases my fears.

By anon218779 — On Sep 30, 2011

I have just found out I have brain atrophy 30 minutes ago. I am a recovering alcoholic and was told that my drinking alcohol from the age of 18 has attributed to this. I have 18 years clean and sober and still this damn disease haunts me. I am going in for a complete brain scan as soon as they can set me an appointment. I am scared and do not know what to expect.

By anon217906 — On Sep 27, 2011

My best friend and boyfriend has just been diagnosed with cerebral atrophy and epilepsy. In all my years of just being his friend, he's never even had to worry about something like this. Only a few months ago he had his first seizure, and ever since then he's been on anti-convulsion medication.

More recent brain scans have revealed that there was a shadowed spot on his brain. It just sneaked up on us. I left for college and he's back in our hometown dealing with this on his own. It's no one's fault, but up until he had his seizure though, no one thought to check his father's medical records. His father passed at an early age, and the records had shown that he had been secretly been treated for epilepsy and never told anyone. It's so hard.

By anon178691 — On May 22, 2011

My brother was diagnosed with brain atrophy. He is 43 years old, with epilepsy. I am in so much pain and I want to do something for him but I can't. Any suggestions?

By anon168251 — On Apr 16, 2011

my son of 12 months has just had a brain CT Scan and the radiologist says the findings are of moderate brain atrophy? is my son safe?

By anon157871 — On Mar 04, 2011

I just found out I have brain atrophy. I already lost 10 percent of my brain. I'm not sure what to expect. I have another doctor's appointment next week. Has anyone or know someone who has gone through this?--SJC

By anon154584 — On Feb 21, 2011

my partner of 30 years has brain atrophy, apparently from excessive beer drinking and heredity from his father. such a struggle. he is only 57 years old and life now has changed with none of the future we planned. no more dreams.

Please, if you know anyone who is over drinking, talk to them before they too disappear like my partner.

By anon107559 — On Aug 30, 2010

I have been diagnosed with brain atrophy (dilation of the cerebral ventricles) in January. Ironic out of over 600 in my graduation class, I'll never forget what the principal told me when he took my head measurement for the cap and gown: "7 5/8" the largest head size in my class of 600-plus Austin, Tx anon1949.

By LivHappyr — On Jun 24, 2010

anon91559- Thank you for sharing your story; you must have such great strength and courage to go through that with your mom. I am very sorry for your loss. GeminiMama posted that the size of her baby’s head was cause for alarm for this condition. If you don’t mind me asking, what symptoms did your mom have that caused concern? I read it is accompanied by other conditions like Alzheimer’s and my grandmother is starting to show signs. Thank you.

By anon91559 — On Jun 22, 2010

My mother had brain atrophy, and it caused her death when she was 57 years. In the last stages of her disease, she was like a small baby, losing all her capabilities and skills, even eating and swallowing.

By GeminiMama — On Jun 18, 2010

My son was born over the 100th percentile mark on the chart for size of his head. The pediatrician was concerned, so they did an MRI. They were afraid my son had a brain atrophy and wouldn’t live longer than 3 months. The earliest I could schedule to meet with a pediatric neurosurgeon was two months later. That wait was pure agony. I was afraid to buy new baby clothes and cuddled with him as much as I could. My husband couldn’t bear to go to the appointment, so I went alone.

The doctor looked at my son and told me I had nothing to worry about. He said my husband’s older brother must have a large head and told me to measure it. He was right; apparently large heads run in the family.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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