Age-related white matter atrophy in the human brain

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1992 Dec 26;673:260-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1992.tb27462.x.


Aging of the brain involves not only appreciable shrinkage of the cortex and other gray matter structures but above all loss of white matter. This could be due to a decline in the number of myelinated fibers or to a loss of water. To assess the role played by each of these factors we studied brains from 33 neurologically intact subjects at autopsy representing three different age groups: 15-50, 51-70, and 71-93 years. The precentral gyrus, gyrus rectus, and corpus callosum were selected for investigation, with staining for alkaline phosphatase on native cryostat sections to visualize the capillary network, and staining for myelin on semithin sections for nerve fiber visualization. Atrophy was objectified by measuring the number of capillaries, the intercapillary distance, and capillary length, since the capillary network remains constant throughout normal life. A mean difference of 16-20% was found, representing white matter atrophy, between the oldest and youngest age-groups. The cortex of the corresponding gyri, on the other hand, showed a difference of less than 6%. Morphometric investigation of sections stained for myelin showed that the brains with a mean age of 78.7 +/- 6.6 years had 10-15% fewer myelinated fibers. This was only partly offset by an increase in the volume of extracellular space. Our findings show that the age-related decline in brain volume is much more a question of white matter atrophy than of brain cortex atrophy. White matter atrophy could be an indirect indicator of nerve cell loss, since the volume of a nerve cell is much smaller than its myelinated fiber.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Atrophy
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Capillaries / anatomy & histology
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Extracellular Space / physiology
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Fibers / ultrastructure