NEW YORK, NY (December 22, 2013) — Using high-resolution functional MRI (fMRI) imaging in patients with Alzheimer's disease and in mouse models of the disease, Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have clarified three fundamental issues about Alzheimer's: where it starts, why it starts there, and how it spreads. In addition to advancing understanding of Alzheimer's, the findings could improve early detection of the disease, when drugs may be most effective. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
"It has been known for years that Alzheimer's starts in a brain region known as the entorhinal cortex," said co-senior author Scott A. Small, MD, Boris and Rose Katz Professor of Neurology, professor of radiology, and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. "But this study is the first to show in living patients that it begins specifically in the lateral entorhinal cortex, or LEC. The LEC is considered to be a gateway to the hippocampus, which plays a key role in the consolidation of long-term memory, among other functions. If the LEC is affected, other aspects of the hippocampus will also be affected."
The study also shows that, over time, Alzheimer's spreads from the LEC directly to other areas of the cerebral cortex, in particular, the parietal cortex, a brain region involved in various functions, including spatial orientation and navigation. The researchers suspect that Alzheimer's spreads "functionally," that is, by compromising the function of neurons in the LEC, which then compromises the integrity of neurons in adjoining areas.
A third major finding of the study is that LEC dysfunction occurs when changes in tau and amyloid precursor protein (APP) co-exist. "The LEC is especially vulnerable to Alzheimer's because it normally accumulates tau, which sensitizes the LEC to the accumulation of APP. Together, these two proteins damage neurons in the LEC, setting the stage for Alzheimer's," said co-senior author Karen E. Duff, PhD, professor of pathology and cell biology (in psychiatry and in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain) at CUMC and at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
In the study, the researchers used a high-resolution variant of fMRI to map metabolic defects in the brains of 96 adults enrolled in the Washington Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP). All of the adults were free of dementia at the time of enrollment.
"Dr. Richard Mayeux's WHICAP study enables us to follow a large group of healthy elderly individuals, some of whom have gone on to develop Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Small. "This study has given us a unique opportunity to image and characterize patients with Alzheimer's in its earliest, preclinical stage."
The 96 adults were followed for an average of 3.5 years, at which time 12 individuals were found to have progressed to mild Alzheimer's disease. An analysis of the baseline fMRI images of those 12 individuals found significant decreases in cerebral blood volume (CBV) — a measure of metabolic activity — in the LEC compared with that of the 84 adults who were free of dementia.
A second part of the study addressed the role of tau and APP in LEC dysfunction. While previous studies have suggested that entorhinal cortex dysfunction is associated with both tau and APP abnormalities, it was not known how these proteins interact to drive this dysfunction, particularly in preclinical Alzheimer's.
To answer this question, explained first author Usman Khan, an MD-PhD student based in Dr. Small's lab, the team created three mouse models, one with elevated levels of tau in the LEC, one with elevated levels of APP, and one with elevated levels of both proteins. The researchers found that the LEC dysfunction occurred only in the mice with both tau and APP.
The study has implications for both research and treatment. "Now that we've pinpointed where Alzheimer's starts, and shown that those changes are observable using fMRI, we may be able to detect Alzheimer's at its earliest preclinical stage, when the disease might be more treatable and before it spreads to other brain regions," said Dr. Small. In addition, say the researchers, the new imaging method could be used to assess the efficacy of promising Alzheimer's drugs during the disease's early stages.
The paper is titled, "Molecular drivers and cortical spread of lateral entorhinal cortex dysfunction in preclinical Alzheimer's disease." The other contributors are Li Liu, Frank Provenzano, Diego Berman, Caterina Profaci, Richard Sloan and Richard Mayeux, all at CUMC.
The authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interests.
The study was supported by grants from National Institutes of Health (AG034618, AG025161, AG07232, AG037212, NS074874, and HL094423.
The Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University Medical Center is a multidisciplinary group that has forged links between researchers and clinicians to uncover the causes of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other age-related brain diseases and to discover ways to prevent and cure these diseases. It has partnered with the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at Columbia University Medical Center, which was established by an endowment in 1977 to focus on diseases of the nervous system, and with the Departments of Pathology & Cell Biology and of Neurology to allow the seamless integration of genetic analysis, molecular and cellular studies, and clinical investigation to explore all phases of diseases of the nervous system. For more information, visit The Taub Institute at http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/taub/.
The Washington Heights-Inwood Community Aging Project (WHITCAP) at Columbia University Medical Center is a community-based longitudinal study of aging and dementia among elderly, urban-dwelling residents. The project began enrolling patients in 1989 and has followed more than 5,900 residents over 65 years of age. Because participants may be dementia-free when they join the study, WHICAP has enabled researchers to capture detailed information about the onset of dementia and how symptoms develop over time. It has yielded comprehensive data on the rates and risk factors—both genetic and environmental—for Alzheimer's disease and dementia among African-Americans, Caribbean Hispanics, and Caucasians living in these two Northern Manhattan communities. WHICAP is run by a multidisciplinary team led by Richard Mayeux, MD, MS, professor, chair of neurology, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain, and director of the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at Columbia University Medical Center, and is supported by a grant (R01AG0372) from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health.
Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit cumc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.