What does Dementia Really do to the Brain?

Written by Active Minds on Thursday the 28th of January 2016.

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While we may understand the basics of dementia and the effect it has on our loved ones, not many of us are aware of exactly what is is the condition does to the brain. Having a deeper awareness of the condition itself can help with understanding various treatments and medications, as well as the best ways to help people living with dementia cope. That’s why we’ve put together this short guide to learning exactly what dementia does to the brain.

Our brain is incredibly complex and much of the way it works remains unknown or subject to further research. In fact someone once said that, to be able to understand the human brain, the human brain would have to be so much more simple that it wouldn’t be able to understand itself in the first place. Still, scientists have a fairly good understanding of how different types of dementia affect different parts of the brain and this can be crucial to understanding why your loved one with dementia acts or responds in different ways as their condition progresses.

Alzheimer’s

One of the most common forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s tends to affect one part of the brain first and then to spread over time, which is why you might notice changes in behaviour or increased problems as the condition progresses. Normally Alzheimer’s affects a person’s hippocampus first, an area within the temporal lobe that is responsible for memory and language. People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might display symptoms such as struggling to form new memories or to retain new information.

As Alzheimer’s spreads through the brain, different symptoms may become apparent depending on which areas of the brain are affected although it is common to notice increased visual problems, difficulty with spacial awareness, and problems recognising people.

However it is also common that the parts of the brain responsible for emotions and skills tend to be some of the last to be damaged (especially the latter, which are stored deep within the brain). This is why you may notice your loved one has an emotional response to a situation or person without being able to recognise who or what it is. They may also be able to demonstrate skills such as playing an instrument or painting for a long time after their diagnosis. This is why treatments such as music therapy can be incredibly effective at helping people with Alzheimer’s retain a sense of self and self-worth.

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia is most common after a stroke and occurs because the stroke (or a similar brain problem) cuts off the blood supply to one part of the brain.

The symptoms of vascular dementia will depend on which part of the brain has been affected. For example damage to the hippocampus will cause similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s while damage to the frontal lobes will affect decision-making, problem-solving and a person’s ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal Dementia occurs when either the frontal lobes, temporal lobes, or both, begin to shrink.

As in vascular dementia, damage to the frontal lobes of the brain will cause slower thinking and give people problems with everyday tasks and decision-making. The temporal lobes however, are responsible for memory and language so you may notice symptoms such as trouble recognising people, recalling words, communication, or retaining new information.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies

Lewy bodies are small deposits of protein that can build up in the brain and cause damage. Rather than affecting the frontal and temporal lobes, as in most cases of dementia, this form of the condition affects the parts of the brain responsible for bodily functions, social skills, reasoning, and vision. Symptoms may include sight problems, hallucinations, changes in behaviour, and problems with physical movement.

Understanding the key differences between each type of dementia will help you to work out which sort of care and therapy will be beneficial to your loved ones, hopefully helping both you and them to live an easier and more fulfilling life.