Raised blood pressure and diabetes in mid-life alter brain structure

The higher the pressure, the worse it is.


A new study conducted by the neuroscientists at Oxford University raised blood pressure and diabetes significantly impaired the brain’s cognitive functions, specifically the performance of thinking speed and short-term memory.

These impacts appear to be mediated by alternations in brain structure detected using new MRI brain scanning analysis methods. The brain changes occurred in individuals with high blood pressure and diabetes, who were otherwise healthy people.

In a past study, scientists found that blood pressure and diabetes in mid-life can increase dementia development later in life. This new study reveals that these factors can also have a direct impact on cognitive performance in mid-life.

Masud Husain, Professor of Neurology and Cognitive Neuroscience at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and lead investigator of the study, said, “For blood pressure, every mm of pressure in your arteries counts – even in people who aren’t on any treatment. For people on treatment, systolic blood pressures above 140 mm were associated with lower cognitive performance. The higher the pressure, the worse it is.”

Looking at results from 22,000 volunteers in the UK Biobank who underwent brain scanning, the scientists found that cognitive abilities are detrimentally affected by cerebrovascular risk factors.

Dr. Michele Veldsman, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Cognitive Neurology at the Department of Experimental Psychology and co-author of the study, said, “The MRI scans show that raised blood pressure and glucose seem to alter both the grey matter and the white matter connections in the brain.”

Dr. Xin You Tai, collaborator and DPhil student at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, said, “These changes seem to impact the speed of thinking and short-term memory directly.”

Professor Husain said, “Monitoring and treating even modestly raised blood pressure might make a difference to the structure of the brain and speed of thinking in mid-life, while also offering the potential to reduce the risks of developing dementia later in life.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Veldsman, M., Tai, X., Nichols, T. et al. Cerebrovascular risk factors impact frontoparietal network integrity and executive function in healthy ageing. Nat Commun 11, 4340 (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-18201-5
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