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J Alzheimers Dis. 2019;70(4):1005-1023. doi: 10.3233/JAD-190035.

Dementia Risk Elevates Brain Activity During Memory Retrieval: A Functional MRI Analysis of Middle Aged and Older Adults.

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Department of Psychology, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA.


Longitudinal research suggests that genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors enhance one's risk for developing Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (ADRD). However, it is not known how an accumulation of such factors impact brain functioning. One barrier to this research is that increased risk for ADRD affects the cerebrovascular system and, therefore, alters the link between neural activity and the fMRI BOLD signal. To better interpret fMRI findings, several steps were taken to adjust fMRI activity thereby reducing such cerebrovascular effects. We hypothesized that as the number of ADRD risk factors increase, brain regions within the medial temporal lobes and the default mode network would exhibit altered brain activity during an episodic memory retrieval task. Middle-aged and older adults (aged 50-74) free of dementia were recruited with varying levels of risk and underwent a neuropsychological battery and fMRI. In the memory task, participants viewed a pair of pictures. In an alternative-forced-choice test, participants viewed a picture cue and had to determine which of four pictures was paired with the cue. Increased dementia risk was positively associated with brain activity in regions of interest within the default mode network, the hippocampus, and the entorhinal cortex during memory retrieval. Whole-brain analyses revealed additional positive associations in prefrontal and occipito-temporal cortices. Risk factors most contributing to these elevated levels of brain activity included hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and cholesterol. We also ruled out confounds due to in-scanner performance and premorbid ability. Cumulative risk might represent early signs of burnout in brain regions underlying episodic memory.


Alzheimer’s disease; default mode network; dementia; episodic memory; functional magnetic resonance imaging; medial temporal lobe; minority health; risk factors


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