Blood-Brain Barrier Breakdown in Relationship to Alzheimer and Vascular Disease

Ann Neurol. 2021 Aug;90(2):227-238. doi: 10.1002/ana.26134. Epub 2021 Jun 5.


Objective: Blood-brain barrier (BBB) breakdown has been suggested to be an early biomarker in human cognitive impairment. However, the relationship between BBB breakdown and brain pathology, most commonly Alzheimer disease (AD) and vascular disease, is still poorly understood. The present study measured human BBB function in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) patients on 2 molecular scales, specifically BBB's permeability to water and albumin molecules.

Methods: Fifty-five elderly participants were enrolled, including 33 MCI patients and 22 controls. BBB permeability to water was measured with a new magnetic resonance imaging technique, water extraction with phase contrast arterial spin tagging. BBB permeability to albumin was determined using cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)/serum albumin ratio. Cognitive performance was assessed by domain-specific composite scores. AD pathology (including CSF Aβ and ptau) and vascular risk factors were examined.

Results: Compared to cognitively normal subjects, BBB in MCI patients manifested an increased permeability to small molecules such as water but was no more permeable to large molecules such as albumin. BBB permeability to water was found to be related to AD markers of CSF Aβ and ptau. On the other hand, BBB permeability to albumin was found to be related to vascular risk factors, especially hypercholesterolemia, but was not related to AD pathology. BBB permeability to small molecules, but not to large molecules, was found to be predictive of cognitive function.

Interpretation: These findings provide early evidence that BBB breakdown is related to both AD and vascular risks, but their effects can be differentiated by spatial scales. BBB permeability to small molecules has a greater impact on cognitive performance. ANN NEUROL 2021;90:227-238.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / cerebrospinal fluid*
  • Alzheimer Disease / diagnostic imaging
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / diagnostic imaging
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / metabolism*
  • Capillary Permeability / physiology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / cerebrospinal fluid*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / diagnostic imaging
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Peptide Fragments / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Serum Albumin, Human / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Vascular Diseases / cerebrospinal fluid*
  • Vascular Diseases / diagnostic imaging
  • tau Proteins / cerebrospinal fluid


  • ALB protein, human
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • MAPT protein, human
  • Peptide Fragments
  • amyloid beta-protein (1-42)
  • tau Proteins
  • Serum Albumin, Human