A new theory gaining traction in scientific circles suggests chronic inflammation may play a prominent role in memory decline.
Scientists have known that chronic inflammation is associated with many diseases. Inflammation in and of itself is the body’s natural way to deal with tissue damage.
In the brain, inflammation is thought to play a role in aging and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. If chronic inflammation is found to be a significant factor for declining cognitive function, anti-inflammatory medications may be helpful.
In a new study, high levels of a protein associated with chronic, low-grade inflammation in the brain were found in individuals beginning to experience memory decline.
Animal studies have found that long-term brain inflammation impairs the hippocampus — a region of the brain known to be involved in storing and generating memory.
The scientists in the study hypothesized that the presence of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of chronic low grade inflammation in the brain, would be associated with poorer memory creation and smaller medial-temporal lobes, which include the hippocampus.
They examined 76 women and men (mean age 71.8) with detectible levels of CRP in their blood, and 65 people (mean age 70.8) with undetectable levels.
All participants were given a 16-word list learning task to measure verbal recall, and underwent magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, to measure the size or volumes of specific regions of the brain, including the hippocampus.
The results showed that adults with measureable levels of C reactive protein recalled fewer words and had smaller medial temporal lobes.
Scientists don’t know if the inflammation indicated by the C reactive protein is the cause of the memory loss, if it reflects a response to some other disease process or if the two factors are unrelated.
But if inflammation causes the cognitive decline, relatively simple treatments could help, said Joel H. Kramer, Psy.D., director of the neuropsychology program at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center.
“Anti-inflammatory drugs available today could be used to treat low grade infections in the brain, and could be used more aggressively following surgery, which prompts a large inflammatory response,” he said.
Kramer and his colleagues plan to monitor the participants until the end of their lives and to use additional inflammatory markers – ones that tend to be more sensitive to acute changes than CRP.
“We think such a study will give us a better idea of what’s driving the processes we’ve observed,” he said. “If baseline levels of inflammatory markers predict change over time, we’d consider a clinical trial using anti-inflammatory drugs to treat inflammation.”
Inflammation is just one of several possible factors that might be driving cognitive decline in normally aging adults, said Kramer. He and his colleagues are examining the possible impact of cardiovascular and stroke risk factors, as well. “We’re also just starting to look at exercise, and want to study sleep,” he said.