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Understanding brain changes in older people

14 February 2011 

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), at King’s, in collaboration with colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Newcastle have recently reported findings from the largest study to date to investigate brain changes in older people with depression.  

Previous studies have suggested that depression in older people may be a risk factor for developing dementia, perhaps because depression is often an early symptom of this disease. The current findings suggest reasons why some people develop depression late in life.  Brains, donated for research, showed that depression was associated with loss of nerve cells in the hippocampus - an area of the brain known to be important in memory function and commonly affected by Alzheimer's disease. However, depression was not associated with the microscopic appearances in the brain that are seen with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, depression was associated with another brain change called Lewy bodies which are known to be important in certain types of dementia and in Parkinson's disease.  

Dr Stewart, Head of Section of Epidemiology at the IoP and corresponding author on this paper, said: ‘This study has provided important new information on depression which affects many older people and causes substantial disability and suffering. This knowledge would not have been gained without the generosity of the many people who very kindly agreed to brain donation after their death. Donations of this sort, regardless of whether someone has been in good or poor health, are enormously important for finding out what is wrong with the brain when people develop mental health problems.’

Brain changes underlying illnesses like depression can only be definitely confirmed in people who have donated their brains for research.

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognitive Function and Ageing Study and coordinated by the University of Cambridge which used data from a large community sample.  

‘Neuropathological correlates of late-life depression in older people’ is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. To read the paper in full, please follow the link.

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