The selective vulnerability of brainstem nuclei to Alzheimer's disease

Ann Neurol. 2001 Jan;49(1):53-66. doi: 10.1002/1531-8249(200101)49:1<53::aid-ana30>;2-q.


In a study of thioflavin S-stained serial sections from the entire brainstem, we found that the inferior and superior colliculi and the autonomic, monoaminergic, cholinergic, and classical reticular nuclei were affected with varying degrees of severity and frequencies in 32 patients with Alzheimer's disease, whereas no changes were seen in the brainstems of 26 control subjects. The majority of the affected nuclei in patients with Alzheimer's disease exhibit either neurofibrillary tangles or senile plaques, and only a few display both. However, when sections were immunostained with the antibodies 10D5 and AT8 or ALZ50, both beta-amyloid and hyperphosphorylated epitopes of tau protein were found to be present in various concentrations in all the affected nuclei. Our findings suggest that each brainstem nucleus has a distinct vulnerability to Alzheimer's disease-related pathological changes. Given that each nucleus has idiosyncratic neuroanatomical connections and prevailing neurochemical characteristics, the heterogeneous collection of brainstem nuclei can be considered a suitable anatomical ground for further investigation of selective vulnerability in Alzheimer's disease. The finding of severe pathological changes in some brainstem nuclei also raises the possibility that the dysfunction of these nuclei may contribute to the cognitive defects and increased rates of morbidity and mortality in patients with Alzheimer's disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Brain Stem / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged