Identification of early pericyte loss and vascular amyloidosis in Alzheimer's disease retina

Acta Neuropathol. 2020 May;139(5):813-836. doi: 10.1007/s00401-020-02134-w. Epub 2020 Feb 10.


Pericyte loss and deficient vascular platelet-derived growth factor receptor-β (PDGFRβ) signaling are prominent features of the blood-brain barrier breakdown described in Alzheimer's disease (AD) that can predict cognitive decline yet have never been studied in the retina. Recent reports using noninvasive retinal amyloid imaging, optical coherence tomography angiography, and histological examinations support the existence of vascular-structural abnormalities and vascular amyloid β-protein (Aβ) deposits in retinas of AD patients. However, the cellular and molecular mechanisms of such retinal vascular pathology were not previously explored. Here, by modifying a method of enzymatically clearing non-vascular retinal tissue and fluorescent immunolabeling of the isolated blood vessel network, we identified substantial pericyte loss together with significant Aβ deposition in retinal microvasculature and pericytes in AD. Evaluation of postmortem retinas from a cohort of 56 human donors revealed an early and progressive decrease in vascular PDGFRβ in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and AD compared to cognitively normal controls. Retinal PDGFRβ loss significantly associated with increased retinal vascular Aβ40 and Aβ42 burden. Decreased vascular LRP-1 and early apoptosis of pericytes in AD retina were also detected. Mapping of PDGFRβ and Aβ40 levels in pre-defined retinal subregions indicated that certain geometrical and cellular layers are more susceptible to AD pathology. Further, correlations were identified between retinal vascular abnormalities and cerebral Aβ burden, cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA), and clinical status. Overall, the identification of pericyte and PDGFRβ loss accompanying increased vascular amyloidosis in Alzheimer's retina implies compromised blood-retinal barrier integrity and provides new targets for AD diagnosis and therapy.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Cerebral amyloid angiopathy; Neurodegeneration; Pericytes; Retinopathy; Vascular damage.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / metabolism
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor / metabolism
  • Amyloidosis / complications
  • Amyloidosis / pathology*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / pathology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cerebral Amyloid Angiopathy / pathology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pericytes / pathology*
  • Retina / pathology*


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Amyloid beta-Protein Precursor