Concerted changes in transcripts in the prefrontal cortex precede neuropathology in Alzheimer's disease

Brain. 2010 Dec;133(Pt 12):3699-723. doi: 10.1093/brain/awq258. Epub 2010 Oct 1.


Using the Braak staging for neurofibrillary changes as an objective indicator of the progression of Alzheimer's disease, we have performed a systematic search for global gene expression changes in the prefrontal cortex during the course of Alzheimer's disease. In the prefrontal cortex, senile plaques and neurofibrillary changes start to appear around Braak stage III, allowing for the detection of changes in gene expression before, during and after the onset of Alzheimer's disease neuropathology. Two distinct patterns of tightly co-regulated groups of genes were observed: (i) an increase in expression in early Braak stages, followed by a decline in expression in later stages (the UPDOWN clusters; containing 865 genes) and (ii) a decrease in expression in early Braak stages, followed by an increase in expression in later stages (the DOWNUP clusters; containing 983 genes). The most profound changes in gene expression were detected between Braak stages II and III, just before or at the onset of plaque pathology and neurofibrillary changes in the prefrontal cortex. We also observed an increase in intracellular beta amyloid staining from Braak stages I to III and a clear decrease in Braak stages IV to VI. These data suggest a link between specific gene expression clusters and Alzheimer's disease-associated neuropathology in the prefrontal cortex. Gene ontology over-representation and functional gene network analyses indicate an increase in synaptic activity and changes in plasticity during the very early pre-symptomatic stage of the disease. In later Braak stages, the decreased expression of these genes suggests a reduction in synaptic activity that coincides with the appearance of plaque pathology and neurofibrillary changes and the clinical diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment. The interaction of the ApoE genotype with the expression levels of the genes in the UPDOWN and DOWNUP clusters demonstrates that the accelerating role of ApoE-ε4 in the progression of Alzheimer's disease is reflected in the temporal changes in gene expression presented here. Since the UPDOWN cluster contains several genes involved in amyloid precursor protein processing and beta amyloid clearance that increase in expression in parallel with increased intracellular beta amyloid load, just before the onset of plaque pathology in the prefrontal cortex, we hypothesize that the temporally orchestrated increase in genes involved in synaptic activity represents a coping mechanism against increased soluble beta amyloid levels. As these gene expression changes occur before the appearance of Alzheimer's disease-associated neuropathology, they provide an excellent starting point for the identification of new targets for the development of therapeutic strategies aimed at the prevention of Alzheimer's disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / genetics
  • Aging / physiology
  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism*
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / biosynthesis
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / genetics
  • Apolipoproteins E / genetics
  • Blotting, Western
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Microarray Analysis
  • Multigene Family / genetics
  • Nucleic Acid Hybridization
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • RNA / biosynthesis
  • RNA / genetics
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sirtuins / genetics
  • Synaptic Transmission / genetics
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Apolipoproteins E
  • RNA
  • Sirtuins