The brain scans were done with an advanced MRI technique called DTI that is used to investigate a number of markers of early brain disease.
Image credit: H. Zonneveld
The new study, by researchers in the Netherlands, features at the 2015 Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) meeting that is taking place this week in Chicago, IL.
One of the study investigators, Dr. Hazel Zonneveld, from the Department of Epidemiology and Radiology at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, says heart and brain diseases are growing problems among aging individuals, and:
"We know that myocardial infarction, heart failure and atrial fibrillation are associated with an increased risk of stroke and dementia. Our study investigates whether the heart-brain link is present at an earlier stage of disease."
The team used data on 2,432 people mostly in their 50s taking part in the Rotterdam Study, which is investigating chronic diseases in the Dutch city's aging population. The analysis excluded participants with a history of heart disease, dementia and stroke.
The researchers analyzed results of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain and blood measures of a peptide called NT-proBNP - a marker of early heart problems.
The analysis found that higher levels of the peptide were linked with smaller total brain volume and larger white matter lesion volume.
First study to link heart marker NT-proBNP to brain microstructure
The MRI scans were done using an advanced technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which tracks movement of water in brain tissue. The technique is used to investigate a number of markers of early brain disease, tiny changes in tissue structure, and white matter lesions, which indicate areas of damage by injury or disease.
The brain has two main types of tissue: gray matter, which is composed of brain cells, and white matter, which comprises long filaments called axons, the communicating parts of the cells.
NT-proBNP, a peptide that is released into the bloodstream when the heart muscle wall comes under stress, is primarily used to diagnose and evaluate the severity of heart failure. Dr. Zonneveld explains why they used it:
"Studies have demonstrated that NT-proBNP provides information on cardiac dysfunction even in the absence of overt heart disease."
The results showed that higher levels of NT-proBNP were linked to worse microstructural organization within the brain's white matter, smaller total brain volume and a larger volume of white matter lesions.
Dr. Zonneveld says the brain volume loss was mostly in the gray matter.
She concludes that their study is the first to link NT-proBNP to brain microstructure, and notes:
"This implies that the heart and brain are intimately linked, even in presumably healthy individuals, and informs us importantly about development of disease as we age."
In 2013, Medical News Today reported an MRI study that found military aviator pilots who fly at high altitudes have significantly more white matter lesions. The researchers suggested their findings add to the idea that at very high aviation altitudes, tiny gas bubbles in brain tissue lead to cerebral injury - similar to that seen in scuba divers.