Alzheimer's disease (AD) is associated with a progressive loss of synapses and neurons. Studies in animal models indicate that morphological alterations of dendritic spines precede synapse loss, increasing the proportion of large and short ("stubby") spines. Whether similar alterations occur in human patients, and what their functional consequences could be, is not known. We analyzed biopsies from AD patients and APP x presenilin 1 knock-in mice that were previously shown to present a loss of pyramidal neurons in the CA1 area of the hippocampus. We observed that the proportion of stubby spines and the width of spine necks are inversely correlated with synapse density in frontal cortical biopsies from non-AD and AD patients. In mice, the reduction in the density of synapses in the stratum radiatum was preceded by an alteration of spine morphology, with a reduction of their length and an enlargement of their neck. Serial sectioning examined with electron microscopy allowed us to precisely measure spine parameters. Mathematical modeling indicated that the shortening and widening of the necks should alter the electrical compartmentalization of the spines, leading to reduced postsynaptic potentials in spine heads, but not in soma. Accordingly, there was no alteration in basal synaptic transmission, but long-term potentiation and spatial memory were impaired. These results indicate that an alteration of spine morphology could be involved in the early cognitive deficits associated with AD.
Keywords: Alzheimer's disease; Amyloid precursor protein; Amyloid β; Dendritic spine; Long-term potentiation; Synapse.