The molecular bases of Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders

Arch Med Res. Sep-Oct 2001;32(5):367-81. doi: 10.1016/s0188-4409(01)00316-2.


Alzheimer's disease, the cause of one of the most common types of dementia, is a brain disorder affecting the elderly and is characterized by the formation of two main protein aggregates: senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, which are involved in the process leading to progressive neuronal degeneration and death. Neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease is a pathologic condition of cells rather than an accelerated way of aging. The senile plaques are generated by a deposition in the human brain of fibrils of the beta-amyloid peptide (Abeta), a fragment derived from the proteolytic processing of the amyloid precursor protein (APP). Tau protein is the major component of paired helical filaments (PHFs), which form a compact filamentous network described as neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs). Experiments with hippocampal cells in culture have indicated a relationship between fibrillary amyloid and the cascade of molecular signals that trigger tau hyperphosphorylations. Two main protein kinases have been shown to be involved in anomalous tau phosphorylations: the cyclin-dependent kinase Cdk5 and glycogen synthase kinase GSK3beta. Cdk5 plays a critical role in brain development and is associated with neurogenesis as revealed by studies in brain cells in culture and neuroblastoma cells. Deregulation of this protein kinase as induced by extracellular amyloid loading results in tau hyperphosphorylations, thus triggering a sequence of molecular events that lead to neuronal degeneration. Inhibitors of Cdk5 and GSK3beta and antisense oligonucleotides exert protection against neuronal death. On the other hand, there is cumulative evidence from studies in cultured brain cells and on brains that oxidative stress constitutes a main factor in the modification of normal signaling pathways in neuronal cells, leading to biochemical and structural abnormalities and neurodegeneration as related to the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease. This review is focused on the main protein aggregates responsible for neuronal death in both sporadic and familial forms of Alzheimer's disease, as well as on the alterations in the normal signaling pathways of functional neurons directly involved in neurodegeneration. The analysis is extended to the action of neuroprotective factors including selective inhibitors of tau phosphorylating protein kinases, estrogens, and antioxidants among other molecules that apparently prevent neuronal degeneration.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age of Onset
  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / epidemiology
  • Alzheimer Disease / genetics*
  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor / chemistry
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor / genetics
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor / physiology
  • Apolipoproteins E / genetics
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Astrocytes / pathology
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Caspases / metabolism
  • Cell Death
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Humans
  • Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Memory Disorders / genetics
  • Memory Disorders / metabolism
  • Middle Aged
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Motor Neuron Disease / genetics
  • Motor Neuron Disease / metabolism
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / deficiency
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / genetics
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / physiology
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / genetics*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / metabolism
  • Neurofibrillary Tangles / metabolism
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Neurotoxins / metabolism
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Parkinson Disease / genetics
  • Parkinson Disease / metabolism
  • Presenilin-1
  • Presenilin-2
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational
  • Signal Transduction
  • alpha-Macroglobulins / genetics
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor
  • Apolipoproteins E
  • Estrogens
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Neurotoxins
  • PSEN1 protein, human
  • PSEN2 protein, human
  • Presenilin-1
  • Presenilin-2
  • alpha-Macroglobulins
  • tau Proteins
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Caspases
  • Calcium