People suffering with high blood pressure also have damaged nerve tracts connecting different parts of the brain, says a new study. The area of brain damage detected is linked to difficulties in certain cognitive skills, decision-making and the ability to regulate emotions.
"We already have clear ways to explore the damage high blood pressure can cause to the kidneys, eyes and heart. We wanted to find a way to assess brain damage that could predict the development of dementia associated with vascular diseases," said Dr. Daniela Carnevale from the Sapienza University of Rome.
While there has been a lot of research on hypertension-related brain changes in the grey matter, Carnevale proposed that a look into the brain's white matter could tell if high blood pressure was having an effect even earlier than what is known.
Researchers used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), an enhancement of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to evaluate and compare the structural and functional properties of the main connections between different brain regions.
Fifteen participants were on medication for moderate to severe high blood pressure and 15 participants had normal blood pressure. Participants were also given a cognitive assessment.
The DTI revealed that participants with high blood pressure had damage to brain fibers that affect non-verbal functions; nerve fibers that affect executive functioning and emotional regulation; and limbic system fibers, which are involved in attention tasks. In addition, imaging and laboratory tests indicated damage to the heart and kidneys from high blood pressure.
Researchers also found that those with high blood pressure performed significantly worse on two different assessments of cognitive function and memory.
DTI, also called tractography, is not performed in routine medical practice, but the researchers suggest that physicians should start to consider potential brain damage as they treat patients with high blood pressure.The findings were presented at the ongoing American Heart Association's 2015 high blood pressure conference in Washington.