17/04/2014 07:12 BST | Updated 17/04/2014 07:59 BST

Apathy In Older People Could Be A Sign Of Brain Shrinkage

Older people who show signs of apathy - a lack of emotion, interest or energy - are more likely to have smaller brain volumes than those who aren't apathetic, a new study has revealed.

"Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes," said Lenore J. Launer, PhD, with the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

"Apathy symptoms are common in older people without dementia. And the fact that participants in our study had apathy without depression should turn our attention to how apathy alone could indicate brain disease."

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Launer's team used brain volume as a measure of accelerated brain ageing. Brain volume losses occur during normal ageing, but in this study, larger amounts of brain volume loss could indicate brain diseases.

For the study, 4,354 people without dementia and with an average age of 76 underwent an MRI scan. They were also asked questions that measure apathy symptoms, which include lack of interest, lack of emotion, dropping activities and interests, preferring to stay at home and having a lack of energy.

The study found that people with two or more apathy symptoms had 1.4 percent smaller gray matter volume and 1.6 percent less white matter volume compared to those who had less than two symptoms of apathy. Excluding people with depression symptoms did not change the results.

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Gray matter is where learning takes place and memories are stored in the brain. White matter acts as the communication cables that connect different parts of the brain.

"If these findings are confirmed, identifying people with apathy earlier may be one way to target an at-risk group," Launer said.

This study was published in the journal Neurology.