Background: Acetylcholinesterase activity, a marker for degeneration of the central cholinergic system, has consistently been reported, in necropsy brain studies, to be reduced in the cerebral cortex of patients with Alzheimer's disease. We have shown regional acetylcholinesterase activity in vivo in rodent and primate brains with radioactive acetylcholine analogues. In the present study, we used one of the analogues to map acetylcholinesterase activity in the brains of living people.
Methods: Positron emission tomography (PET) and a radiolabelled acetylcholine analogue with high hydrolytic specificity to acetylcholinesterase [11C]N-methyl-4-piperidyl acetate (MP4A), was used in eight elderly healthy controls and five patients with Alzheimer's disease who had mild dementia. All participants were given an intravenous injection of [11C]MP4A and then sequential patterns of radioactivity in various brain regions were obtained by PET. Time courses of [11C]MP4A concentration in arterial blood were also measured to obtain an input function. A three-compartment model was used to estimate regional acetylcholinesterase activity in the brain.
Findings: The estimated acetylcholinesterase distribution in the brain of the control participants agreed with the acetylcholinesterase distribution at necropsy. All patients with Alzheimer's disease had multiple cortical regions with a reduced estimated acetylcholinesterase activity in comparison with control participants. The reduction was more pronounced in the parietotemporal cortex, with an average reduction rate of 31% in temporal and 38% in parietal cortex, and less pronounced in other cortical lesions (19% in frontal, 24% in occipital, and 20% in sensorimotor cortex). Each patient was found to have at least two cortical regions with significantly reduced acetylcholinesterase activity.
Interpretation: The method we describe for non-invasive in-vivo detection of regional acetylcholinesterase changes in the living human brain that is feasible for biochemical assessment of Alzheimer's disease.