Researchers correlated brain damage evident on magnetic resonance imaging to increased risk of dementia in a paper published Thursday in the journal Stroke.
The research shows how microstructural damage seen in MRI scans of stroke patients can predict cognitive decline and dementia.
The authors said the imaging technique can help physicians monitor stroke patients and identify individuals who may benefit from early treatment.
People who present with lacunar strokes, a subgroup of patients with the brain disease, can have cerebral small vessel disease (SVD) that manifests in cognitive impairment and ultimately dementia. These conditions arise because of damage to small blood vessels in the brain.
That link between vascular damage and dementia led University of London researchers to track 99 SVD patients. Participants in the study were assessed using the diffusion tensor image segmentation (DSEG) MRI imaging technique annually for three years and cognitive assessments for five years. The researchers compared the imaging data to the cognitive results.
Eighteen participants developed dementia during the study. Average time to onset was approximately three years and four months, the American Heart Association said.
The study also correlated imaging results to declining executive function but found no link between the MRI data and information processing speed. Despite that limitation of the predictive power of the technique, the researchers said the approach has a role in the monitoring of SVD patients.
"Taken together, these findings suggest that DSEG may be used as a clinical tool to monitor SVD progression in patients and predict risk of developing dementia," the authors wrote in the paper.
While physicians lack good, validated treatments for cerebral SVD, a range of potential therapeutic options are available. If there is good reason to think a patient may develop dementia, a physician may recommend a more active, interventionist approach to treating SVD, potentially delaying or preventing cognitive decline.