Changes in Cognitive Function After Kidney Transplantation: A Longitudinal Cohort Study

Am J Kidney Dis. 2024 Jul;84(1):28-37.e1. doi: 10.1053/j.ajkd.2023.12.022. Epub 2024 Feb 28.


Rationale & objective: Kidney disease negatively affects cognition. We assessed the effect of kidney transplantation (KT) on different cognitive domains.

Study design: Prospective cohort study.

Setting & participants: We examined pre- versus post-KT cognition in patients waitlisted for KT at an academic center.

Predictors: Transplant status. We measured cognitive function before KT (n=101), 3 months after KT (n=78), and 1 year after KT (n = 83).

Outcomes: Our primary outcome was change in cognitive function before versus after KT. We used standard neuropsychological tests to assess global cognition (Mini-Mental State Exam [MMSE]), episodic/declarative memory (Logical Memory), psychomotor speed/visuospatial function (Digit Symbol Substitution Test [DSST], Trail Making Test [TMT] A), working memory/attention (Digit Span), executive function (TMT B), and semantic memory/verbal fluency/language (Category Fluency).

Analytical approach: Using linear mixed model analysis, we evaluated the changes in neuropsychological test scores adjusted for age, sex, race, education, and number of assessments.

Results: Before KT, Logical Memory I and II, DSST, MMSE, Category Fluency (animal naming), and Digit Span backward scores were low compared with normative values from the National Alzheimer's Coordinating Center data. Logical Memory I and II scores improved after KT (pre- vs post-KT, estimated group difference [d]=3.3, P<0.001 for Logical Memory I; d=4.27, P<0.001 for Logical Memory II), such that post-KT scores were similar to normative values (post-KT vs normative values, d = -0.37, P=0.06 for Logical Memory I; d = -0.89, P=0.08 for Logical Memory II). Category Fluency (animal naming; d=2.4, P<0.001) and DSST (d=3.12, P=0.01) scores also improved with KT, but post-KT DSST scores remained lower than normative values (post-KT vs normative values, d = -5.17, P<0.001). MMSE, Digit Span, and TMT A and B scores did not change after KT.

Limitations: Single-center study.

Conclusions: Episodic and verbal declarative memory normalize after KT. Semantic memory, verbal fluency, language, psychomotor speed, and visuospatial function show partial improvement. Cognitive impairment in kidney disease is therefore at least partly reversible with KT.

Plain-language summary: Cognitive impairment in kidney disease affects self-esteem, vocational abilities, quality of life, health care costs, and mortality. It is not clear whether kidney transplantation (KT) improves cognition and whether the improvement is uniform across cognitive domains. The distinction between reversible and irreversible cognitive impairment has important implications in the clinical care of patients before and after KT. We assessed cognition before KT and 3 months and 12 months after KT and discovered that episodic and verbal declarative memory normalized with KT. Semantic memory, verbal fluency, language, psychomotor speed, and visuospatial function also improved with KT but did not reach normal levels. Cognitive impairment in kidney disease is therefore at least partly reversible.

Keywords: Kidney transplant, Cognitive impairment, ESKD.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cognition* / physiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Executive Function
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / psychology
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / surgery
  • Kidney Transplantation*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests*
  • Prospective Studies