Analyzing dendritic spine pathology in Alzheimer's disease: problems and opportunities

Acta Neuropathol. 2015 Jul;130(1):1-19. doi: 10.1007/s00401-015-1449-5. Epub 2015 Jun 11.


Synaptic failure is an immediate cause of cognitive decline and memory dysfunction in Alzheimer's disease. Dendritic spines are specialized structures on neuronal processes, on which excitatory synaptic contacts take place and the loss of dendritic spines directly correlates with the loss of synaptic function. Dendritic spines are readily accessible for both in vitro and in vivo experiments and have, therefore, been studied in great detail in Alzheimer's disease mouse models. To date, a large number of different mechanisms have been proposed to cause dendritic spine dysfunction and loss in Alzheimer's disease. For instance, amyloid beta fibrils, diffusible oligomers or the intracellular accumulation of amyloid beta have been found to alter the function and structure of dendritic spines by distinct mechanisms. Furthermore, tau hyperphosphorylation and microglia activation, which are thought to be consequences of amyloidosis in Alzheimer's disease, may also contribute to spine loss. Lastly, genetic and therapeutic interventions employed to model the disease and elucidate its pathogenetic mechanisms in experimental animals may cause alterations of dendritic spines on their own. However, to date none of these mechanisms have been translated into successful therapeutic approaches for the human disease. Here, we critically review the most intensely studied mechanisms of spine loss in Alzheimer's disease as well as the possible pitfalls inherent in the animal models of such a complex neurodegenerative disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Amyloid / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Dendritic Spines / pathology*
  • Dendritic Spines / physiology
  • Humans


  • Amyloid