What can an MRI tell us about dementia?

Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans, known as an MRI, are used to identify tumours, strokes and other health issues that can lead to a dementia diagnosis.


These scans acquire detailed images to look for cortical atrophy, which causes the brain’s outer layer to degenerate over time.


They play a part in dementia research because they help us to understand how different types of dementia affect the brain and if parts of it shrink as a result.


An MRI can therefore indicate whether individuals are showing symptoms of dementia, and also show how they respond to treatments.

What happens during an MRI?

The process usually lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, and patients are asked to wear headphones or ear plugs as the scanner is loud and emits powerful magnetic field radio frequency pulses to acquire the images. 

You can usually wear your own clothes, but sometimes you will be asked to wear a gown.
The computer will produce a detailed image of your bones, organs and soft tissue that can be analysed for abnormalities. 

As the scanner uses a strong magnetic field, any jewellery or piercings will have to be removed ahead of time and you will be asked as well whether you have any metal in your body such as plates, screws and pins.  

What does an MRI do?


MRI scans can help to detect any abnormalities often associated with mild cognitive impairment, which can then be used to predict if you may develop dementia – most commonly Alzheimer’s. 


They will be able to measure the size, and number, of cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain that is responsible for accessing memories. 

Often, this is the first noticeable brain function to be impaired by dementia. 

A healthy brain cortex should appear wrinkled with tissue ridges throughout, and include valleys that separate them. 

But, in brains where cortical atrophy is occurring, these ridges will appear thinner and the valleys wider. 


As dementia develops, MRIs will begin to identify changes in the brain’s structure, showing a decrease in the size of different parts such as the temporal and parietal lobes. 


The parietal lobe handles a number of integral functions such as calculation, order, the body’s sense of location and visual perception. 

An MRI can also demonstrate if this area of the brain has begun to atrophy, again indicating the progression of dementia.

MRI scan

Researching dementia with MRI scans



There is ongoing research into dementia, and MRI scans are an integral part of it.

The brain images they produce help us to understand the causes and development of the disease better. 


In the UK and worldwide, institutions such as the UCL Dementia Research Centre are engaged in projects using these scans to aid in early detection. 


There is no single test that can provide a dementia diagnosis, and there is still much research to be done into the disease, its different types and causes. 

However, MRIs can help add to our knowledge and understanding, sometimes allowing specialists to find reversible causes for cognitive decline. 

With proper treatment, some individuals can reverse the damage done and completely restore their former cognitive functions. 


This is why early detection is so important and, if you have concerns about yourself or someone you love, it is important to visit a doctor.

They will be able to carry out a range of cognitive tests and, if necessary, an MRI to identify symptoms of dementia or if there are other cognitive issues.

Accurate diagnosis is the key to receiving appropriate and effective treatment, taking the correct steps to deal with dementia in the best way possible. 

Dementia is a disease that takes a substantial mental, physical, and emotional toll on the individual and those around them. 

It can be challenging to come to terms with because it is often a slow-developing condition over time.

However, with ongoing research and studies using advanced neuroimaging techniques, we can begin to understand its behaviour better and how to treat it. 


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