Contributions of cardiovascular risk and smoking to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)-related changes in brain structure and function

Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2019 Aug 21;14:1855-1866. doi: 10.2147/COPD.S213607. eCollection 2019.


Background: Brain damage and cardiovascular disease are extra-pulmonary manifestations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Cardiovascular risk factors and smoking are contributors to neurodegeneration. This study investigates whether there is a specific, COPD-related deterioration in brain structure and function independent of cardiovascular risk factors and smoking.

Materials and methods: Neuroimaging and clinical markers of brain structure (micro- and macro-) and function (cognitive function and mood) were compared between 27 stable COPD patients (age: 63.0±9.1 years, 59.3% male, forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV1]: 58.1±18.0% pred.) and 23 non-COPD controls with >10 pack years smoking (age: 66.6±7.5 years, 52.2% male, FEV1: 100.6±19.1% pred.). Clinical relationships and group interactions with brain structure were also tested. All statistical analyses included correction for cardiovascular risk factors, smoking, and aortic stiffness.

Results: COPD patients had significantly worse cognitive function (p=0.011), lower mood (p=0.046), and greater gray matter atrophy (p=0.020). In COPD patients, lower mood was associated with markers of white matter (WM) microstructural damage (p<0.001), and lower lung function (FEV1/forced vital capacity and FEV1) with markers of both WM macro (p=0.047) and microstructural damage (p=0.028).

Conclusion: COPD is associated with both structural (gray matter atrophy) and functional (worse cognitive function and mood) brain changes that cannot be explained by measures of cardiovascular risk, aortic stiffness, or smoking history alone. These results have important implications to guide the development of new interventions to prevent or delay progression of neuropsychiatric comorbidities in COPD. Relationships found between mood and microstructural abnormalities suggest that in COPD, anxiety, and depression may occur secondary to WM damage. This could be used to better understand disabling symptoms such as breathlessness, improve health status, and reduce hospital admissions.

Keywords: MRI; chronic lung disease; cigarette smoke; cognition; depression; neuroimaging.

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Aged
  • Brain Diseases / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Diseases / etiology*
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology
  • Brain Diseases / psychology
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain* / physiopathology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / diagnosis
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Forced Expiratory Volume
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Degeneration
  • Neuroimaging / methods
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prognosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / etiology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Vascular Stiffness
  • Vital Capacity