Characterization of mitochondrial DNA quantity and quality in the human aged and Alzheimer's disease brain

Mol Neurodegener. 2021 Nov 6;16(1):75. doi: 10.1186/s13024-021-00495-8.


Background: Mitochondrial dysfunction is a feature of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease (AD). Changes in the mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNAcn) and increased mitochondrial DNA mutation burden have both been associated with neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline. This study aims to systematically identify which common brain pathologies in the aged human brain are associated with mitochondrial recalibrations and to disentangle the relationship between these pathologies, mtDNAcn, mtDNA heteroplasmy, aging, neuronal loss, and cognitive function.

Methods: Whole-genome sequencing data from n = 1361 human brain samples from 5 different regions were used to quantify mtDNAcn as well as heteroplasmic mtDNA point mutations and small indels. Brain samples were assessed for 10 common pathologies. Annual cognitive test results were used to assess cognitive function proximal to death. For a subset of samples, neuronal proportions were estimated from RNA-seq profiles, and mass spectrometry was used to quantify the mitochondrial protein content of the tissue.

Results: mtDNAcn was 7-14% lower in AD relative to control participants. When accounting for all 10 common neuropathologies, only tau was significantly associated with lower mtDNAcn in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In the posterior cingulate cortex, TDP-43 pathology demonstrated a distinct association with mtDNAcn. No changes were observed in the cerebellum, which is affected late by pathologies. Neither age nor gender was associated with mtDNAcn in the studied brain regions when adjusting for pathologies. Mitochondrial content and mtDNAcn independently explained variance in cognitive function unaccounted by pathologies, implicating complex mitochondrial recalibrations in cognitive decline. In contrast, mtDNA heteroplasmy levels increased by 1.5% per year of life in the cortical regions, but displayed no association with any of the pathologies or cognitive function.

Conclusions: We studied mtDNA quantity and quality in relation to mixed pathologies of aging and showed that tau and not amyloid-β is primarily associated with reduced mtDNAcn. In the posterior cingulate cortex, the association of TDP-43 with low mtDNAcn points to a vulnerability of this region in limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy. While we found low mtDNAcn in brain regions affected by pathologies, the absence of associations with mtDNA heteroplasmy burden indicates that mtDNA point mutations and small indels are unlikely to be involved in the pathogenesis of late-onset neurodegenerative diseases.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Amyloid; Mitochondria; Mitochondrial DNA copy number; Mitochondrial heteroplasmy; Neurodegeneration; TDP-43; Tau.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease* / metabolism
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / metabolism
  • Brain / metabolism
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • DNA, Mitochondrial