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What Is Cortical Atrophy?

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  • Written By: Samantha Bangayan
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 18 March 2014
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Cortical atrophy is a medical diagnosis indicating a degeneration of brain cells, which is why it’s sometimes called “brain atrophy.” The word “cortical” refers to the cortex, the outermost part of the brain, which consists of six folded layers of connected neurons. The word “atrophy” refers to the action of wasting away or decreasing in volume. Diseases like posterior cortical atrophy can cause this problem. The patient will show very different symptoms, depending on where atrophy is happening in the cortex.

Posterior cortical atrophy is a progressive degenerative disease, which means that the brain cells increasingly waste away over time. In this disease, atrophy occurs in the posterior cortex at the back of the brain, which is the part that houses the neurons that handle visual processing. As a result, patients have problems with their vision, including difficulty recognizing faces, reading, and seeing in the dark. Vision decline is inevitable with this disease as more cells die in that area of the brain.

People with this condition eventually will begin to have difficulty with coordinated movements and literacy skills. These symptoms are expressed through a difficulty using tools, putting on clothes, sitting on a chair, writing letters of the alphabet, and spelling words. At a certain point during the course of the disease, atrophy can extend to other areas of the brain and turn into full-blown dementia. These patients display further degeneration of memory, language, and cognitive capacity.

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Posterior cortical atrophy treatment involves prescription medication to slow down degeneration or help surviving brain cells function more effectively. Medical professionals often recommend that patients also supplement their medication with occupational therapy. Occupational therapists assist the patient in adapting to daily life and living as independently as possible, even with faltering visual, motor, and cognitive ability. Some patients can become depressed or irritable while dealing with the rapid loss of independence and can also benefit from antidepressant medication. These approaches treat the symptoms of the disease, but there is no cure.

Possible risk factors for the development of brain atrophy include tobacco use, alcohol use, head injury, and a genetic predisposition. When brain cells begin wasting away, patients have lower life expectancy. Other diseases that involve atrophy include Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Brain atrophy occurs in all humans as they grow older, but typically not to a clinical extent.

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Discuss this Article

anon228940
Post 3

From what I have read about PCA, it is a rare disease, so I am wondering if it is genetic? My mother was diagnosed at 71 after years of doctor visits and tests. We do not have a family history of dementia.

SkyWhisperer
Post 2

@Charred - I agree. In my opinion there is no greater inspiration in this regard than Stephen Hawking.

He suffers from a paralyzing muscle atrophy that forces him to use a machine to talk. I don’t know how much of his disease has impaired his brain function, but you certainly couldn’t tell if it had.

Hawking is one of the most brilliant scientists of the modern era, and is an example of what you can do when you keep exercising your brain, regardless of your physical condition.

Charred
Post 1

The article points out that all brain cells atrophy to some extent as we grow older. I’ve heard that too, with atrophy symptoms such as increased forgetfulness happening as people age; the brain simply gets smaller and smaller.

However, there is good news. There is a way to reduce atrophy, at least from what scientists tell us. The way to do that is to exercise the brain; in other words, keep it active, learn a new language, skill or activity. Do crossword puzzles (although this is probably on the low end of mental exercises).

In short, keep doing things that keep your brain alert and sharp and you can minimize the atrophy. That’s what I plan to do, well into my nineties! Perhaps I’ll be speaking multiple languages or reciting Shakespeare or something, but I don’t intend to wither and die.

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