Changes in the intracranial volume from early adulthood to the sixth decade of life: A longitudinal study

Yaron Caspi, Rachel M Brouwer, Hugo G Schnack, Marieke E van de Nieuwenhuijzen, Wiepke Cahn, René S Kahn, Wiro J Niessen, Aad van der Lugt, Hilleke Hulshoff Pol

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Normal brain-aging occurs at all structural levels. Excessive pathophysiological changes in the brain, beyond the normal one, are implicated in the etiology of brain disorders such as severe forms of the schizophrenia spectrum and dementia. To account for brain-aging in health and disease, it is critical to study the age-dependent trajectories of brain biomarkers at various levels and among different age groups. The intracranial volume (ICV) is a key biological marker, and changes in the ICV during the lifespan can teach us about the biology of development, aging, and gene X environment interactions. However, whether ICV changes with age in adulthood is not resolved. Applying a semi-automatic in-house-built algorithm for ICV extraction on T1w MR brain scans in the Dutch longitudinal cohort (GROUP), we measured ICV changes. Individuals between the ages of 16 and 55 years were scanned up to three consecutive times with 3.32±0.32 years between consecutive scans (N = 482, 359, 302). Using the extracted ICVs, we calculated ICV longitudinal aging-trajectories based on three analysis methods; direct calculation of ICV differences between the first and the last scan, fitting all ICV measurements of individuals to a straight line, and applying a global linear mixed model fitting. We report statistically significant increase in the ICV in adulthood until the fourth decade of life (average change +0.03%/y, or about 0.5 ml/y, at age 20), and decrease in the ICV afterward (−0.09%/y, or about −1.2 ml/y, at age 55). To account for previous cross-sectional reports of ICV changes, we analyzed the same data using a cross-sectional approach. Our cross-sectional analysis detected ICV changes consistent with the previously reported cross-sectional effect. However, the reported amount of cross-sectional changes within this age range was significantly larger than the longitudinal changes. We attribute the cross-sectional results to a generational effect. In conclusion, the human intracranial volume does not stay constant during adulthood but instead shows a small increase during young adulthood and a decrease thereafter from the fourth decade of life. The age-related changes in the longitudinalmeasure are smaller than those reported using cross-sectional approaches and unlikely to affect structural brain imaging studies correcting for intracranial volume considerably. As to the possible mechanisms involved, this awaits further study, although thickening of the meninges and skull bones have been proposed, as well as a smaller amount of brain fluids addition above the overall loss of brain tissue.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116842
Pages (from-to)1-16
Early online date24 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2020


  • Aging
  • Cross-sectional design
  • Intracranial volume
  • Longitudinal design
  • Structural MRI


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