Longitudinal Basal Forebrain Degeneration Interacts with TREM2/C3 Biomarkers of Inflammation in Presymptomatic Alzheimer's Disease

J Neurosci. 2020 Feb 26;40(9):1931-1942. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1184-19.2019. Epub 2020 Jan 8.


Cholinergic inputs originating from the peripheral nervous system regulate the inflammatory immune responses of macrophages during clearance of blood-based pathogens. Because microglia are involved in clearing amyloid and tau pathology from the central nervous system, we hypothesized that cholinergic input originating from the basal forebrain might similarly regulate inflammatory immune responses to these pathologies in the aging brain. To explore this hypothesis, we leveraged the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative dataset. Cognitively normal older male and female human adults were differentiated according to the relative concentration of phosphorylated tau and amyloid in their cerebrospinal fluid, yielding neurotypical and preclinical, cognitively healthy, subgroups. We then tracked these two groups longitudinally with structural MRI and biomarkers of inflammation, including soluble sTREM2 levels in the CSF and complement C3 expression in the blood transcriptome. Longitudinal loss of basal forebrain volume was larger in the preclinical compared with the neurotypical subgroup. Across preclinical adults, loss of basal forebrain volume was associated with greater longitudinal accumulation of sTREM2 and higher peripheral blood C3 expression. None of these relationships were attributable to degeneration in the whole-brain gray matter volume. Preclinical APOE e4 carriers exhibited the largest loss of basal forebrain volume and highest C3 expression. Consistent with the known anti-inflammatory influence of the peripheral cholinergic pathways on macrophages, our findings indicate that a loss of central cholinergic input originating from the basal forebrain might remove a key check on microglial inflammation induced by amyloid and tau accumulation.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT In the peripheral nervous system, cholinergic modulation holds the reactivity of macrophages to blood-based pathogens in check, promoting clearance while preventing runaway inflammation and immune-triggered cell death. Microglia are the brain's resident macrophages and play an important role in clearing accumulated amyloid and tau from neurons. Here, we demonstrate that a loss of cholinergic integrity in the CNS, indexed by longitudinal decreases of basal forebrain volume, interacts with multiple biomarkers of inflammation in cognitively normal older adults with abnormal amyloid and tau pathology. These interactions were not detected in cognitively normal older adults with "neurotypical" levels of amyloid and tau. An age-related loss of cholinergic neuromodulation may remove key checks on microglial reactivity to amyloid and tau.

Keywords: amyloid; basal forebrain cholinergic system; complement C3; phosphorylated tau; preclinical Alzheimer's disease; soluble TREM2.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / genetics
  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism*
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Amyloid / metabolism
  • Apolipoproteins E / metabolism
  • Basal Forebrain / growth & development
  • Basal Forebrain / pathology*
  • Biomarkers
  • Complement C3 / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Complement C3 / genetics
  • Complement C3 / metabolism*
  • Encephalitis / genetics
  • Encephalitis / metabolism*
  • Encephalitis / pathology*
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / genetics
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / pathology*
  • Neuroimaging
  • Receptors, Immunologic / genetics
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism*
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • Amyloid
  • Apolipoproteins E
  • Biomarkers
  • C3 protein, human
  • Complement C3
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • TREM2 protein, human
  • tau Proteins