Plasma GFAP is an early marker of amyloid-β but not tau pathology in Alzheimer's disease

Brain. 2021 Dec 16;144(11):3505-3516. doi: 10.1093/brain/awab223.


Although recent clinical trials targeting amyloid-β in Alzheimer's disease have shown promising results, there is increasing evidence suggesting that understanding alternative disease pathways that interact with amyloid-β metabolism and amyloid pathology might be important to halt the clinical deterioration. In particular, there is evidence supporting a critical role of astroglial activation and astrocytosis in Alzheimer's disease. However, so far, no studies have assessed whether astrocytosis is independently related to either amyloid-β or tau pathology in vivo. To address this question, we determined the levels of the astrocytic marker GFAP in plasma and CSF of 217 amyloid-β-negative cognitively unimpaired individuals, 71 amyloid-β-positive cognitively unimpaired individuals, 78 amyloid-β-positive cognitively impaired individuals, 63 amyloid-β-negative cognitively impaired individuals and 75 patients with a non-Alzheimer's disease neurodegenerative disorder from the Swedish BioFINDER-2 study. Participants underwent longitudinal amyloid-β (18F-flutemetamol) and tau (18F-RO948) PET as well as cognitive testing. We found that plasma GFAP concentration was significantly increased in all amyloid-β-positive groups compared with participants without amyloid-β pathology (P < 0.01). In addition, there were significant associations between plasma GFAP with higher amyloid-β-PET signal in all amyloid-β-positive groups, but also in cognitively normal individuals with normal amyloid-β values (P < 0.001), which remained significant after controlling for tau-PET signal. Furthermore, plasma GFAP could predict amyloid-β-PET positivity with an area under the curve of 0.76, which was greater than the performance achieved by CSF GFAP (0.69) and other glial markers (CSF YKL-40: 0.64, soluble TREM2: 0.71). Although correlations were also observed between tau-PET and plasma GFAP, these were no longer significant after controlling for amyloid-β-PET. In contrast to plasma GFAP, CSF GFAP concentration was significantly increased in non-Alzheimer's disease patients compared to other groups (P < 0.05) and correlated with amyloid-β-PET only in amyloid-β-positive cognitively impaired individuals (P = 0.005). Finally, plasma GFAP was associated with both longitudinal amyloid-β-PET and cognitive decline, and mediated the effect of amyloid-β-PET on tau-PET burden, suggesting that astrocytosis secondary to amyloid-β aggregation might promote tau accumulation. Altogether, these findings indicate that plasma GFAP is an early marker associated with brain amyloid-β pathology but not tau aggregation, even in cognitively normal individuals with a normal amyloid-β status. This suggests that plasma GFAP should be incorporated in current hypothetical models of Alzheimer's disease pathogenesis and be used as a non-invasive and accessible tool to detect early astrocytosis secondary to amyloid-β pathology.

Keywords: Aβ-PET; GFAP; astrocytosis; cognition; tau-PET.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / blood*
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology*
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / metabolism*
  • Biomarkers / blood*
  • Female
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein / blood*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Biomarkers
  • GFAP protein, human
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein
  • MAPT protein, human
  • tau Proteins