Differential Signaling Mediated by ApoE2, ApoE3, and ApoE4 in Human Neurons Parallels Alzheimer's Disease Risk

J Neurosci. 2019 Sep 11;39(37):7408-7427. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2994-18.2019. Epub 2019 Jul 22.


In blood, apolipoprotein E (ApoE) is a component of circulating lipoproteins and mediates the clearance of these lipoproteins from blood by binding to ApoE receptors. Humans express three genetic ApoE variants, ApoE2, ApoE3, and ApoE4, which exhibit distinct ApoE receptor-binding properties and differentially affect Alzheimer's disease (AD), such that ApoE2 protects against, and ApoE4 predisposes to AD. In brain, ApoE-containing lipoproteins are secreted by activated astrocytes and microglia, but their functions and role in AD pathogenesis are largely unknown. Ample evidence suggests that ApoE4 induces microglial dysregulation and impedes Aβ clearance in AD, but the direct neuronal effects of ApoE variants are poorly studied. Extending previous studies, we here demonstrate that the three ApoE variants differentially activate multiple neuronal signaling pathways and regulate synaptogenesis. Specifically, using human neurons (male embryonic stem cell-derived) cultured in the absence of glia to exclude indirect glial mechanisms, we show that ApoE broadly stimulates signal transduction cascades. Among others, such stimulation enhances APP synthesis and synapse formation with an ApoE4>ApoE3>ApoE2 potency rank order, paralleling the relative risk for AD conferred by these ApoE variants. Unlike the previously described induction of APP transcription, however, ApoE-induced synaptogenesis involves CREB activation rather than cFos activation. We thus propose that in brain, ApoE acts as a glia-secreted signal that activates neuronal signaling pathways. The parallel potency rank order of ApoE4>ApoE3>ApoE2 in AD risk and neuronal signaling suggests that ApoE4 may in an apparent paradox promote AD pathogenesis by causing a chronic increase in signaling, possibly via enhancing APP expression.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Humans express three genetic variants of apolipoprotein E (ApoE), ApoE2, ApoE3, and ApoE4. ApoE4 constitutes the most important genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease (AD), whereas ApoE2 protects against AD. Significant evidence suggests that ApoE4 impairs microglial function and impedes astrocytic Aβ clearance in brain, but the direct neuronal effects of ApoE are poorly understood, and the differences between ApoE variants in these effects are unclear. Here, we report that ApoE acts on neurons as a glia-secreted signaling molecule that, among others, enhances synapse formation. In activating neuronal signaling, the three ApoE variants exhibit a differential potency of ApoE4>ApoE3>ApoE2, which mirrors their relative effects on AD risk, suggesting that differential signaling by ApoE variants may contribute to AD pathogenesis.

Keywords: Alzheimer's disease (AD); apolipoprotein E (ApoE); induced neuronal (iN) cells; signaling pathway; synapse formation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / genetics*
  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Apolipoprotein E2 / biosynthesis
  • Apolipoprotein E2 / genetics*
  • Apolipoprotein E3 / biosynthesis
  • Apolipoprotein E3 / genetics*
  • Apolipoprotein E4 / biosynthesis
  • Apolipoprotein E4 / genetics*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / physiology*
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics*
  • Genetic Variation / physiology
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Random Allocation
  • Signal Transduction / physiology


  • Apolipoprotein E2
  • Apolipoprotein E3
  • Apolipoprotein E4