Synaptic degeneration in Alzheimer's disease

Acta Neuropathol. 2009 Jul;118(1):167-79. doi: 10.1007/s00401-009-0536-x. Epub 2009 Apr 24.


Synaptic loss is the major neurobiological substrate of cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer's disease (AD). Synaptic failure is an early event in the pathogenesis that is clearly detectable already in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a prodromal state of AD. It progresses during the course of AD and in most early stages involves mechanisms of compensation before reaching a stage of decompensated function. This dynamic process from an initially reversible functionally responsive stage of down-regulation of synaptic function to stages irreversibly associated with degeneration might be related to a disturbance of structural brain self-organization and involves morpho-regulatory molecules such as the amyloid precursor protein. Further, recent evidence suggests a role for diffusible oligomers of amyloid beta in synaptic dysfunction. To form synaptic connections and to continuously re-shape them in a process of ongoing structural adaptation, neurons must permanently withdraw from the cell cycle. Previously, we formulated the hypothesis that differentiated neurons after having withdrawn from the cell cycle are able to use molecular mechanisms primarily developed to control proliferation alternatively to control synaptic plasticity. The existence of these alternative effector pathways within neurons might put them at risk of erroneously converting signals derived from plastic synaptic changes into the program of cell cycle activation, which subsequently leads to cell death. The molecular mechanisms involved in cell cycle activation might, thus, link aberrant synaptic changes to cell death.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / metabolism
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cell Cycle / physiology
  • Cognition Disorders / pathology
  • Humans
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology*
  • Nerve Degeneration / physiopathology
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Phosphorylation
  • Protease Nexins
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism
  • Synapses / pathology*
  • Synapses / physiology
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor
  • MAPT protein, human
  • Protease Nexins
  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • tau Proteins