Purpose: Using PET imaging in a group of patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD), we investigated whether level of education, a proxy for resilience, mitigates the harmful impact of tau pathology on neuronal function.
Methods: We included 38 patients with mild-to-moderate AD (mean age 67 ± 7 years, mean MMSE score 24 ± 4, mean years of education 14 ± 4; 20 men, 18 women) in whom a [18F]AV-1451 scan (a measure of tau pathology) and an [18F]FDG scan (a measure of neuronal function) were available. The preprocessed PET scans were z-transformed using templates for [18F]AV-1451 and [18F]FDG from healthy controls, and subsequently thresholded at a z-score of ≥3.0, representing an one-tailed p value of 0.001. Next, three volumes were computed in each patient: the tau-specific volume (tau pathology without neuronal dysfunction), the FDG-specific volume (neuronal dysfunction without tau pathology), and the overlap volume (tau pathology and neuronal dysfunction). Mean z-scores and volumes were extracted and used as dependent variables in regression analysis with years of education as predictor, and age and MMSE score as covariates.
Results: Years of education were positively associated with tau-specific volume (β = 0.362, p = 0.022), suggesting a lower impact of tau pathology on neuronal function in patients with higher levels of education. Concomitantly, level of education was positively related to tau burden in the overlap volume (β = 0.303, p = 0.036) implying that with higher levels of education more tau pathology is necessary to induce neuronal dysfunction.
Conclusion: In patients with higher levels of education, tau pathology is less paralleled by regional and remote neuronal dysfunction. The data suggest that early life-time factors such as level of education support resilience mechanisms, which ameliorate AD-related effects later in life.
Keywords: Brain maintenance; Brain reserve; Glucose metabolism; Resilience; [18F]AV-1451; [18F]FDG.