Neurofibrillary tau depositions emerge with subthreshold cerebral beta-amyloidosis in down syndrome

Neuroimage Clin. 2021:31:102740. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102740. Epub 2021 Jun 24.


Introduction: Adults with Down syndrome are genetically predisposed to develop Alzheimer's disease and accumulate beta-amyloid plaques (Aβ) early in life. While Aβ has been heavily studied in Down syndrome, its relationship with neurofibrillary tau is less understood. The aim of this study was to evaluate neurofibrillary tau deposition in individuals with Down syndrome with varying levels of Aβ burden.

Methods: A total of 161 adults with Down syndrome (mean age = 39.2 (8.50) years) and 40 healthy, non-Down syndrome sibling controls (43.2 (12.6) years) underwent T1w-MRI, [C-11]PiB and [F-18]AV-1451 PET scans. PET images were converted to units of standardized uptake value ratios (SUVrs). Aβ burden was calculated using the amyloid load metric (AβL); a measure of global Aβ burden that improves quantification from SUVrs by suppressing the nonspecific binding signal component and computing the specific Aβ signal from all Aβ-carrying voxels from the image. Regional tau was assessed using control-standardized AV-1451 SUVr. Control-standardized SUVrs were compared across Down syndrome groups of Aβ-negative (A-) (AβL < 13.3), subthreshold A+ (13.3 ≤ AβL < 20) and conventionally A+ (AβL ≥ 20) individuals. The subthreshold A + group was identified as having significantly higher Aβ burden compared to the A- group, but not high enough to satisfy a conventional A + classification.

Results: A large-sized association that survived adjustment for chronological age, mental age (assessed using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test), and imaging site was observed between AβL and AV-1451 within each Braak region (p < .05). The A + group showed significantly higher AV-1451 retention across all Braak regions compared to the A- and subthreshold A + groups (p < .05). The subthreshold A + group showed significantly higher AV-1451 retention in Braak regions I-III compared to an age-matched sample from the A- group (p < .05).

Discussion: These results show that even the earliest detectable Aβ accumulation in Down syndrome is accompanied by elevated tau in the early Braak stage regions. This early detection of tau can help characterize the tau accumulation phase during preclinical Alzheimer's disease progression in Down syndrome and suggests that there may be a relatively narrow window after Aβ accumulation begins to prevent the downstream cascade of events that leads to Alzheimer's disease.

Keywords: Amyloid; Down syndrome; Early detection; Neurofibrillary tau.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alzheimer Disease* / diagnostic imaging
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Amyloidosis*
  • Down Syndrome* / complications
  • Down Syndrome* / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • tau Proteins


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • tau Proteins