Structural brain changes in aging: courses, causes and cognitive consequences

Rev Neurosci. 2010;21(3):187-221. doi: 10.1515/revneuro.2010.21.3.187.


The structure of the brain is constantly changing from birth throughout the lifetime, meaning that normal aging, free from dementia, is associated with structural brain changes. This paper reviews recent evidence from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies about age-related changes in the brain. The main conclusions are that (1) the brain shrinks in volume and the ventricular system expands in healthy aging. However, the pattern of changes is highly heterogeneous, with the largest changes seen in the frontal and temporal cortex, and in the putamen, thalamus, and accumbens. With modern approaches to analysis of MRI data, changes in cortical thickness and subcortical volume can be tracked over periods as short as one year, with annual reductions of between 0.5% and 1.0% in most brain areas. (2) The volumetric brain reductions in healthy aging are likely only to a minor extent related to neuronal loss. Rather, shrinkage of neurons, reductions of synaptic spines, and lower numbers of synapses probably account for the reductions in grey matter. In addition, the length of myelinated axons is greatly reduced, up to almost 50%. (3) Reductions in specific cognitive abilities--for instance processing speed, executive functions, and episodic memory--are seen in healthy aging. Such reductions are to a substantial degree mediated by neuroanatomical changes, meaning that between 25% and 100% of the differences between young and old participants in selected cognitive functions can be explained by group differences in structural brain characteristics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / pathology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition Disorders / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Memory Disorders / pathology
  • Memory Disorders / physiopathology