The study led by Aad van der Lugt at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam in the Netherlands was designed to understand the risk factors for dementia in a population of seemingly healthy people aged 45 years and above.
During the course of study, the research scanned the participants' brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which revealed an unexpectedly high number of abnormalities.
While a large benign tumour located inside the brain of an otherwise healthy individual was found in one case, the researchers discovered brain haemorrhaging in another person who felt well but had experienced minor head trauma a month before.
Aad van der Lugt revealed that his team found that 13 per cent of the study subjects had some sort of brain lesion, of which seven per cent (145 participants) had areas of the brain in which cells had died because of blood loss.
He revealed that the presence of such cell death, known to doctors as 'infarcts', had been linked to a doubled risk of dementia and a threefold risk of stroke. He added that there existed no treatments for infarcts that could help decrease the chances of developing dementia or stroke.
The study also revealed that 1.8 per cent of the participants had an undetected aneurysm, and 0.9 per cent had a type of benign tumour known as a meningioma. "I'm surprised that the numbers they found were so high," New Scientist magazine quoted neuroethicist Paul Wolpe at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, as saying. Van der Lugt says that as brain-scanning technologies improve, researchers will increasingly encounter unexpected signs of illness in study participants. "You have to be aware of the incidental findings and prepare for how you will deal with them," he said.
However, several health experts think that MRI machines are extremely expensive, and screening healthy people's brains is a waste of medical funds. "Those are dollars that would go to an underserved, uninsured population," Wolpe says.
Judy Illes at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, believes that it should be left to the people to decide whether they should get a medical test done or not. "If people can afford a medical test, and they fully understand the implications of taking the test, they should not be prohibited from pursuing that desire," she says.