Neurodegenerative diseases selectively target subpopulations of neurons, leading to the progressive failure of defined brain systems, but the basis of such selective neuronal vulnerability has remained elusive. Here, we discuss how a stressor-threshold model of how particular neurons and circuits are selectively vulnerable to disease may underly the etiology of familial and sporadic forms of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, and ALS. According to this model, the intrinsic vulnerabilities of neuronal subpopulations to stressors and specific disease-related misfolding proteins determine neuronal morbidity. Neurodegenerative diseases then involve specific combinations of genetic predispositions and environmental stressors, triggering increasing age-related stress and proteostasis dysfunction in affected vulnerable neurons. Damage to vasculature, immune system, and local glial cells mediates environmental stress, which could drive disease at all stages.
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