Cerebral Atrophy

What Is Cerebral Atrophy?

Cerebral atrophy is the loss of brain cells, called neurons, and their electrochemical connectors, called synapses. This cell loss results in brain shrinkage and, depending on its source and extent, declines in cognitive ability. Cerebral atrophy occurs naturally in all humans. But cell loss can be accelerated by a variety of causes, including injury, infection, and medical conditions such as dementia, stroke, and Huntington’s disease. These latter cases sometimes culminate in more severe brain damage and are potentially life-threatening.

Brain disease in all forms affects as many as one in six Americans and cerebral atrophy is a major indicator. There is no cure for brain-cell loss but treatments exist to reduce or manage symptoms. If you or a loved one is having issues with cognitive decline, see your Baptist Health medical provider.

What Are Cerebral Atrophy Symptoms?

The symptoms of cerebral atrophy can be generalized, meaning that they affect the whole brain, or localized, meaning that only certain parts of the brain are impacted. (Another name for localized atrophy is focal atrophy.) Typical symptoms for generalized atrophy include :

  • Loss of reasoning ability
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty with communication, whether vocally or in writing
  • Memory loss
  • Declines in reading comprehension
  • Onset of learning disabilities.

Symptoms of localized or focal atrophy might include:

  • Difficulty standing upright
  • Loss of coordination
  • Partial paralysis
  • Absence of physical sensation in certain parts of the body
  • Double or unfocused vision
  • Difficulties speaking or understanding speech (aphasia).

Some symptoms are severe enough to require emergency medical treatment. Among these are loss of consciousness, hallucinations, seizures, eye pain, and highly aggressive or suicidal behaviors.  

What Causes Cerebral Atrophy?

Serious cases of cerebral atrophy have a wide range of causes – essentially any source of brain-cell death. These can be categorized broadly as diseases, infections, or injuries. Examples are below:

Diseases and Other Medical Disorders

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Leukodystrophies
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Pick’s disease


  • Encephalitis
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Syphilis


  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injuries.

A number of factors increase the likelihood of cerebral atrophy. These include old age, high blood pressure (hypertension), a family history of neurological disorders, and any physical or employment activity that carries the risk of head injury.

How Is Cerebral Atrophy Diagnosed?

Medical personnel have several means of diagnosing cerebral atrophy:

  • Medical history and physical exam: Your physician will document your medical history and ask questions about your symptoms. He or she will be interested to know when they started, their frequency and severity, and how they’ve persisted or changed over time.
  • Brain-function tests: To ascertain possible cognitive impairment, your doctor may administer certain brain-function tests, such as those for language or memory.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scans: Imaging scans of the brain can reveal physiological change, such as swelling or evidence of brain shrinkage.

The diagnosis of cerebral atrophy will depend in part on the suspected cause or causes. If, for example, your physician thinks that you may have a neurological disorder, he or she will conduct the tests that medical science has devised for identifying those conditions.

How Is Cerebral Atrophy Treated?

Treatment will likewise depend on what’s actually causing the cerebral atrophy. For example:

  • AIDS: AIDS is an autoimmune disorder treated with antiviral medications.
  • Multiple sclerosis: MS is a disease in which the immune systems attacks the body’s own nerve cells. Disease-modifying drugs, such as ocrelizumab, are used to address it.
  • Stroke: Strokes or “brain attacks” are often the result of blood clots cutting off the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain. These can be dissolved by TPAs – tissue plasminogen activator medications. 
  • Syphilis: Syphilis treatment typically involves antibiotics.
  • Traumatic brain injury: The treatment of brain injuries often requires some form of surgery.

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia remain incurable. There are, however, treatment modalities for managing their symptoms.

Brain degeneration is, of course, potentially life-threatening. Short of death, it can also rob a person of his or her ability to manage daily affairs, resulting in social withdrawal, isolation, and depression. There is currently no cure for cerebral atrophy, but hope remains that medical research will discover a way to more effectively address this condition. 

Can I Prevent Cerebral Atrophy?

There is no clear-cut evidence that cerebral atrophy is preventable, but taking certain steps reduces the possibility of its early or severe onset. These include exercising regularly, regulating blood pressure, and eating a healthy diet. Foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are good for your gray matter.

Learn More About Cerebral Atrophy from Baptist Health

Brain health is body health. If you or a family member is experiencing symptoms of cognitive impairment, contact the Baptist Health Neuroscience and Stroke team to schedule an appointment. Persons with stroke symptoms should treat them as a medical emergency. Dial 911 or go to the nearest medical-emergency facility.  

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