Is later-life depression a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease or a prodromal symptom: a study using post-mortem human brain tissue?

Alzheimers Res Ther. 2023 Sep 12;15(1):153. doi: 10.1186/s13195-023-01299-2.


Background: Depression and dementia are both common diseases. Although new cases of depression are more common in younger adults, there is a second peak at the age of 50 years suggesting a different pathological process. Late-life depression (LLD) is associated with dementia. However, it remains unclear whether depression represents a dementia prodrome or is a true risk factor for its development. LLD is thought to have a vascular component and this may be a possible link between depression and dementia. We hypothesised that later-life depression is a prodromal manifestation of dementia and would therefore be associated with more AD, and/or ischaemic brain abnormalities that are present in earlier-life depression or in age- and sex-matched controls.

Methods: We assessed post-mortem orbitofrontal cortex and dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex from 145 individuals in 4 groups: 28 18-50-year-olds with depression, 30 older individuals (ages 51-90) with depression, 28 with early AD (Braak tangle stages III-IV) and 57 matched controls (17 early-life, 42 later-life). Levels of Aβ, phospho-tau and α-synuclein were assessed by immunohistochemistry and ELISA. To quantify chronic ischaemia, VEGF, MAG and PLP1 were measured by ELISA. To assess pericyte damage, PDGFRB was measured by ELISA. For blood-brain barrier leakiness, JAM-A, claudin 5 and fibrinogen were measured by ELISA. To quantity endothelial activation, the ratio of ICAM1:collagen IV was assessed by immunohistochemistry.

Results: There was no evidence of chronic cerebral hypoperfusion or increased Aβ/tau in either depression group. There was also no indication of pericyte damage, increased blood-brain barrier leakiness or endothelial activation in the OFC or DLPFC in the depression groups.

Conclusions: Contrary to some previous findings, we have not found evidence of impaired vascular function or increased Aβ in LLD. Our study had a relatively small sample size and limitations in the availability of clinical data. These results suggest that depression is a risk factor for dementia rather than an early manifestation of AD or a consequence of cerebral vascular insufficiency.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Amyloid; Blood–brain barrier; Dementia; Depressive disorder; Tau; Vascular depression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alzheimer Disease*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier
  • Brain
  • Depression
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Prodromal Symptoms