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Poor blood-brain barrier integrity drives white matter losses.

White matter hyperintensities are areas in the brain that appear as intense white spots on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. They are often indicators of cerebral small blood vessel disease and are considered a risk factor for dementia. A 2021 study found that breaches in blood-brain barrier integrity are associated with brain tissue losses and precede the appearance of white matter hyperintensities.

The blood-brain barrier, a specialized system of endothelial cells that shields the brain from toxins present in the blood, supplies the brain’s tissues with vital nutrients and substances necessary for neuronal and metabolic function. The structural integrity of the blood-brain barrier is therefore critical for homeostatic maintenance of the brain microenvironment.

The study involved 43 patients (average age 58 years) who had been diagnosed with cerebral small vessel disease, as evidenced by having experienced a stroke or demonstrating mild cognitive impairment. At the beginning of the study and two years later, participants underwent a variety of MRI techniques that quantified their overall blood-brain barrier permeability as well as the areas surrounding white matter hyperintensities.

The MRIs revealed that participants who had the greatest amount of leaky brain tissue at the beginning of the study exhibited greater white matter tissue losses two years later. These tissue losses translated to greater permeability, a phenomenon particularly evident in the areas surrounding the brain lesions associated with white matter hyperintensities.

These findings suggest that losses in blood-brain barrier integrity damage brain tissue, driving increased permeability and white matter losses. In turn, these changes potentiate the disease processes associated with cerebral small vessel disease. Learn more about the blood-brain barrier in our overview article.

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