When a stroke or other disease damages tiny blood vessels in the brain, the condition is known as small vessel disease. This condition is the most common cause of thinking problems and can even lead to dementia.
Although early treatment could help patients at risk, no effective test is available to identify them.
"We have developed a useful tool for monitoring patients at risk of developing dementia and could target those who need early treatment," said a study led by senior author Rebecca A. Charlton from the University of London in the UK.
The study, published in the Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, evaluated the accuracy of a new MRI analysis technique using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), in predicting thinking problems and dementia related to small vessel disease.
A single scan measured the brain in fine detail to reveal damaged areas.
By comparing these images to a healthy person's, researchers were able to classify the brain into areas of healthy versus damaged tissue.
The study included 99 patients with small vessel disease caused by ischemic stroke, a type of stroke that blocks the blood vessels deep within the brain.
All participants were enrolled in the St George's Cognition and Neuroimaging in Stroke (SCANS) study from 2007 to 2015 in London.
Participants received the MRI scans annually for three years and thinking tests annually for five years.
Eighteen participants developed dementia during the study, with an average time to onset of approximately three years and four months.
Results showed that participants with the most brain damage were much more likely to develop thinking problems.
The analysis also helped predict three-fourths of the dementia cases that occurred during the study.
This advanced MRI analysis offers a highly accurate and sensitive marker of small vessel disease severity in a single measure that can be used to detect who will and will not go on to develop dementia in a five-year period, the researchers noted.
( With inputs from IANS )