Posts Tagged ‘Alzheimer’s pathology’

Alzheimer’s Disease – tau art thou, or amyloid

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Alzheimer’s Disease and Tau

Pathogenic Mechanisms and Therapeutic Approaches

Organizers: Robert Martone (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) and Sonya Dougal (The New York Academy of Sciences)Presented by the Brain Dysfunction Discussion Group

Reported by Caitlin McOmish | Posted February 2, 2016


Microtubule-associated protein tau helps maintain the stability and flexibility of microtubules in neuronal axons. Alternative splicing of the tau gene, MAPT, produces 6 isoforms of tau in the brain and many more in the peripheral nervous system. Tau can be phosphorylated at over 30 sites, and it undergoes many posttranslational modifications to operate as a substrate for multiple enzymes. However, tau also mediates pathological functions including neuroinflammatory response, seizure, and amyloid-β (Aβ) toxicity, and tau pathology is a hallmark of conditions including frontotemporal dementia, traumatic brain injury (TBI), Down syndrome, focal cortical dysplasia, and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), as well as some tumors and infections. On September 18, 2015, speakers at the Brain Dysfunction Discussion Group’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Tau: Pathogenic Mechanisms and Therapeutic Approaches symposium discussed the mechanisms by which tau becomes pathological and how the pathology spreads. They also described emerging therapeutic strategies for AD focused on tau.

Microtubule-associated protein tau has a complex biology, including multiple splice variants and phosphorylation sites. Tau is a key component of microtubules, which contribute to neuronal stability. In AD, tau changes, causing microtubules to collapse, and tau proteins clump together to form neurofibrillary tangles. (Image presented by Robert Martone courtesy of the National Institute on Aging)


Tau is ubiquitous in the brain, with widespread effects, but has historically been overlooked as a driving force in AD. In his introduction to the symposium, Robert Martone from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital highlighted tau’s activity and emergence as a treatment target for this devastating disorder. Hyperphosphorylated tau (p-tau) has long been recognized as a principle component of neurofibrillary tangles in AD; tau monomers are misfolded into oligomers that form tau filaments. As Hartmuth Kolb from Johnson & Johnson explained, the development in 2012 of a tau-specific positron emission tomography (PET) tracer led to important insights into the presence and spread of tau pathology over the course of tauopathies, including AD, in humans. Notably, researchers demonstrated that tau pathology propagates through the brain in a predictable pattern, corresponding to the Braak stages of AD.

Tau pathology spreads through the brain in a predictable pattern. Abnormal tau protein is first observed in the transentorhinal region (stages I and II) and spreads to the limbic regions in stages III and IV, when early signs of AD begin to be observed. Pathology subsequently extends throughout the neocortex, driving fully developed AD. This staging was first described by Braak and Braak in 1991. (Image courtesy of Hartmuth Kolb)


It is likely that the symptoms of AD are produced by the combined effects of tau and Aβ pathologies. George Bloom from the University of Virginia described how Aβ and tau interact to cause mature neurons to reenter the cell cycle, leading to cell death. In a healthy brain, insulin acts as a gatekeeper that maintains adult neurons in the G0 phase after the cells permanently exit the cell cycle. In AD, amyloid oligomers sequester neuronal insulin receptors, causing insulin resistance. In parallel, tau phosphorylation at key sites—pY18 (fyn site), pS409 (PKA site), pS416 (CAM Kinase site), and pS262—drives mTOR signaling at the plasma membrane but not at the lysosome, resulting in cell cycle reentry. In a normal cell, activation of mTOR at the lysosome overrides the cell cycle reentry signal—creating an important regulatory mechanism for maintaining healthy neurons. However, lysosomal activation of mTOR is insulin dependent and thus affected by Aβ-induced insulin insensitivity. Amyloid oligomers, via insulin regulation, release the brakes on a cascade of events driven by p-tau that leads to cell cycle reentry and cell death.

Hallmark dysfunction produced by Aβ is dependent on tau. Pathological Aβ drives the formation of p-tau in the brain, resulting in synaptic dysfunction, cell death, and broad neurocognitive symptoms. This process can be influenced by a range of factors including genetic predisposition, environmental risk factors, and biochemical signaling pathways. (Image courtesy of George Bloom)


Khalid Iqbal from the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities described research showing that p-tau spreads through the brain in a rodent model, well beyond the injection site, in a prion-like manner, and that the spread of pathology can be mitigated by the addition of PP2A—a phosphatase known to be decreased in gray and white matter in AD. PP2A regulation is affected in AD, stroke, and brain acidosis, providing a link between these disorders and tau pathology.

Discussion of the pathophysiology of AD commonly focuses on Aβ plaques and neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) composed of misassembled hyperphosphorylated tau; it has generally been thought that these plaques and tangles are the primary causes of symptoms. However, recent evidence indicates that oligomeric variants of tau are actually far more toxic than the form of tau present in NFTs. Michael Hutton from Eli Lilly and Company studies the properties needed for tau to become pathological. He used animal models to show that the abnormal p-tau “seed,” from which a prion-like spread develops, must be of a high molecular weight (with at minimum three tau units) and highly phosphorylated to induce healthy tau to become pathological. These characteristics are necessary but not sufficient for effective seeding. There is also evidence that tau pathology propagates via an autocatalytic cycle of seeded aggregation and fragmentation.

Propagation, in addition to requiring a large number of p-tau units in aggregates, may be affected by the isomerization of those monomers. Kun Ping Lu from Harvard Medical School provided data suggesting that cis but not trans pT231-tau is a precursor of tauopathy, linking TBI to the later development of neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and AD. He demonstrated a role for Pin1, a phosphorylation-specific prolyl isomerase, in this process using animal models of TBI and AD. Pin1, which is regulated in response to stress, prevents the accumulation of toxic cis p-tau by converting it to the trans isoform, but this process is inhibited in AD and TBI. Lu showed that cis p-tau’s ability to cause and spread neurodegeneration can be blocked by a cis p-tau monoclonal antibody in vitro and in animal models, pointing to the therapeutic potential of targetingcis p-tau for treatment of TBI and AD.

Culturing p-tau seeds in vitro produces a broad array of tau aggregate structures. Marc Diamond from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center discussed the diverse structures produced by different tau seeds, which his team has studied in a series of experiments using in vitro models, animal models, and human postmortem analyses. His lab showed that distinct conformations of aggregate seeds propagate stably, infecting normal cells and leading them to acquire abnormal tau aggregates with distinct, reproducible structures and different biochemical properties. In another study, the team showed that the morphology of the p-tau aggregates was related to diagnosis. Seeds sourced from postmortem human tissue produced reliable phenotypes in culture, which tracked with different diagnoses, retroactively predicting biological outcome. Thus, the characteristics of the p-tau seed have a large influence on the biological outcome, providing a new prospect for presymptomatic diagnosis.

Tau seeds obtained from postmortem brain tissue from AD, argyrophilic grain disease (AGD), corticobasal degeneration (CBD), Pick’s disease (PiD), and progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) produce unique aggregate pathologies in cell culture, including toxic, mosaic, ordered, disordered, and speckled. AD-derived seeds largely produce the speckled phenotype. (Images courtesy of Marc Diamond)


With the mechanisms by which p-tau forms, converts healthy tau, and seeds dysfunction established, the question of how p-tau exits the cell and moves through the brain arises. The pattern of spread and the speed with which the pathology progresses suggests that p-tau propagates trans-synaptically. Nicole Leclerc from the University of Montreal provided evidence to support this view. It is likely, her lab has shown, that tau is secreted and taken up by neurons in an active process, in response to neuronal activity. Tau secretion in vitro increases under conditions such as starvation and lysosomal dysfunction, phenomena found in the early stages of AD. Moreover, hyperphosphorylation appears to increase the targeting of tau to the secretory pathway, potentially accelerating the spread of p-tau. Intriguingly, however, the extracellular tau is hypophosphorylated, suggesting large-scale dephosphorylation during the secretory process. This hypo-tau may activate muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, increasing intracellular Ca2+ and promoting cell death.

These findings suggest that the synapse plays a critical role in the development of AD; the extrasynaptic environment is known to be exquisitely regulated by microglia. The focus of studies into neurodegenerative disorders is often neurons, but genetic studies have repeatedly identified changes in expression of microglial genes in AD, including in one of the leading AD candidate genes, TREM2, demonstrating a fundamental contribution of these cells to AD. Richard Ransohoff of Biogen discussed the importance of this cell type. Microglia enter the brain at around embryonic day (E) 9.5 in rodents and are crucially involved in maintaining brain health. During development the cells play a major role in large-scale synaptic pruning required for effective neural maturation. They are also highly responsive to the environment, and stress in adulthood can reengage microglial synaptic pruning—a process that is adaptive during development but maladaptive in adulthood. The process is regulated by complement system cascades. TGF-β expressed by astrocytes drives neurons to express C1q presynaptically, initiating complement elements to accumulate at the site, ultimately activating microglia to prune the synaptic connection. In AD, inappropriate activation of this cascade may lead to the removal of otherwise healthy connections. Ransohoff described a role for CXCR3, the fractalkine receptor, in regulating reactivity of microglia, and thus mitigating pruning of adult synapses. Regulation of microglia reactivity is driven by epigenetically induced changes in inflammatory response genes. Correspondingly, in the absence of CXCR3, tau pathology is aggravated in htau mice (which express human tau isoforms), suggesting a protective effect of the CXCR3 pathway. Ransohoff closed with the caveat that microglia are not intrinsically helpful or harmful; their properties are context dependent and must be unraveled by empirical observations in appropriate models.

Peter Davies from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research discussed the need to better incorporate current knowledge into research model design, particularly to develop monoclonal antibodies for the treatment of AD. Monoclonal antibodies are a promising strategy, but translating preclinical findings into successful clinical outcomes will require careful consideration of the context of the early research. Most transgenic animal models for AD express p-tau in all neurons, but such extensive p-tau spread is not found in human AD brains. There are several hurdles to determine the drugs’ efficacy and safety in humans; it is difficult to assess specificity and find appropriate dosages. In a series of studies with a focus on external reproducibility, Davies presented evidence from animal models showing that immunotherapy can block the spread of p-tau but cannot undo pathology already present in the brain. In the htau mouse model several putative antibodies lacked efficacy and in some cases appeared to worsen pathology. These findings underscore the need for both better models and improved understanding of mechanisms of action before moving drugs to the clinic.


The New York Academy of Sciences. Alzheimer’s Disease and Tau: Pathogenic Mechanisms and Therapeutic Approaches. Academy eBriefings. 2015. Available at:



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Beyond tau and amyloid

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator






Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders.

Berislav V. Zlokovic

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12, 723-738 (December 2011) |

The neurovascular unit (NVU) comprises brain endothelial cells, pericytes or vascular smooth muscle cells, glia and neurons. The NVU controls blood–brain barrier (BBB) permeability and cerebral blood flow, and maintains the chemical composition of the neuronal ‘milieu’, which is required for proper functioning of neuronal circuits. Recent evidence indicates that BBB dysfunction is associated with the accumulation of several vasculotoxic and neurotoxic molecules within brain parenchyma, a reduction in cerebral blood flow, and hypoxia. Together, these vascular-derived insults might initiate and/or contribute to neuronal degeneration. This article examines mechanisms of BBB dysfunction in neurodegenerative disorders, notably Alzheimer’s disease, and highlights therapeutic opportunities relating to these neurovascular deficits.



The neurovascular unit comprises vascular cells (endothelial cells, pericytes and vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs)), glial cells (astrocytes, microglia and oliogodendroglia) and neurons.
Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are associated with microvascular dysfunction and/or degeneration in the brain, neurovascular disintegration, defective blood–brain barrier (BBB) function and/or vascular factors.
The interactions between endothelial cells and pericytes are crucial for the formation and maintenance of the BBB. Indeed, pericyte deficiency leads to BBB breakdown and extravasation of multiple vasculotoxic and neurotoxic circulating macromolecules, which can contribute to neuronal dysfunction, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative changes.
Alterations in cerebrovascular metabolic functions can also lead to the secretion of multiple neurotoxic and inflammatory factors.
BBB dysfunction and/or breakdown and cerebral blood flow (CBF) reductions and/or dysregulation may occur in sporadic Alzheimer’s disease and experimental models of this disease before cognitive decline, amyloid-β deposition and brain atrophy. In patients with ALS and in some experimental models of ALS, CBF dysregulation, blood–spinal cord barrier breakdown and spinal cord hypoperfusion have been reported prior to motor neuron cell death.
Several studies in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease and, more recently, in patients with this disorder have shown diminished amyloid-β clearance from brain tissue. The recognition of amyloid-β clearance pathways opens exciting new therapeutic opportunities for this disease.
‘Multiple-target, multiple-action’ agents will stand a better chance of controlling the complex disease mechanisms that mediate neurodegeneration in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease than will agents that have only one target. According to the vasculo-neuronal-inflammatory triad model of neurodegenerative disorders, in addition to neurons, brain endothelium, VSMCs, pericytes, astrocytes and activated microglia all represent important therapeutic targets.


Neurons depend on blood vessels for their oxygen and nutrient supplies, and for the removal of carbon dioxide and other potentially toxic metabolites from the brain’s interstitial fluid (ISF). The importance of the circulatory system to the human brain is highlighted by the fact that although the brain comprises ~2% of total body mass, it receives up to 20% of cardiac output and is responsible for ~20% and ~25% of the body’s oxygen consumption and glucose consumption, respectively1. To underline this point, when cerebral blood flow (CBF) stops, brain functions end within seconds and damage to neurons occurs within minutes2.

Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are associated with microvascular dysfunction and/or degeneration in the brain, neurovascular disintegration, defective blood–brain barrier (BBB) function and/or vascular factors1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Microvascular deficits diminish CBF and, consequently, the brain’s supply of oxygen, energy substrates and nutrients. Moreover, such deficits impair the clearance of neurotoxic molecules that accumulate and/or are deposited in the ISF, non-neuronal cells and neurons. Recent evidence suggests that vascular dysfunction leads to neuronal dysfunction and neurodegeneration, and that it might contribute to the development of proteinaceous brain and cerebrovascular ‘storage’ disorders. Such disorders include cerebral β-amyloidosis and cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA), which are caused by accumulation of the peptide amyloid-β in the brain and the vessel wall, respectively, and are features of Alzheimer’s disease1.

In this Review, I will discuss neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration, placing a focus on Alzheimer’s disease because more is known about neurovascular dysfunction in this disease than in other neurodegenerative disorders. The article first examines transport mechanisms for molecules to cross the BBB, before exploring the processes that are involved in BBB breakdown at the molecular and cellular levels, and the consequences of BBB breakdown, hypoperfusion, and hypoxia and endothelial metabolic dysfunction for neuronal function. Next, the article reviews evidence for neurovascular changes during normal ageing and neurovascular BBB dysfunction in various neurodegenerative diseases, including evidence suggesting that vascular defects precede neuronal changes. Finally, the article considers specific mechanisms that are associated with BBB dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, and therapeutic opportunities relating to these neurovascular deficits.

The neurovascular unit

The neurovascular unit (NVU) comprises vascular cells (that is, endothelium, pericytes and vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs)), glial cells (that is, astrocytes, microglia and oliogodendroglia) and neurons1,2, 13 (Fig. 1). In the NVU, the endothelial cells together form a highly specialized membrane around blood vessels. This membrane underlies the BBB and limits the entry of plasma components, red blood cells (RBCs) and leukocytes into the brain. The BBB also regulates the delivery into the CNS of circulating energy metabolites and essential nutrients that are required for proper neuronal and synaptic function. Non-neuronal cells and neurons act in concert to control BBB permeability and CBF. Vascular cells and glia are primarily responsible for maintenance of the constant ‘chemical’ composition of the ISF, and the BBB and the blood–spinal cord barrier (BSCB) work together with pericytes to prevent various potentially neurotoxic and vasculotoxic macromolecules in the blood from entering the CNS, and to promote clearance of these substances from the CNS1.

In the brain, pial arteries run through the subarachnoid space (SAS), which contains the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). These vessels give rise to intracerebral arteries, which penetrate into brain parenchyma. Intracerebral arteries are separated from brain parenchyma by a single, interrupted layer of elongated fibroblast-like cells of the pia and the astrocyte-derived glia limitans membrane that forms the outer wall of the perivascular Virchow–Robin space. These arteries branch into smaller arteries and subsequently arterioles, which lose support from the glia limitans and give rise to pre-capillary arterioles and brain capillaries. In an intracerebral artery, the vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) layer occupies most of the vessel wall. At the brain capillary level, vascular endothelial cells and pericytes are attached to the basement membrane. Pericyte processes encase most of the capillary wall, and they communicate with endothelial cells directly through synapse-like contacts containing connexins and N-cadherin. Astrocyte end-foot processes encase the capillary wall, which is composed of endothelium and pericytes. Resting microglia have a ‘ramified’ shape and can sense neuronal injury.

Figure 2 | Blood–brain barrier transport mechanisms.

Small lipophilic drugs, oxygen and carbon dioxide diffuse across the blood–brain barrier (BBB), whereas ions require ATP-dependent transporters such as the (Na++K+)ATPase. Transporters for nutrients include the glucose transporter 1 (GLUT1; also known as solute carrier family 2, facilitated glucose transporter member 1 (SLC2A1)), the lactate transporter monocarboxylate transporter 1 (MCT1) and the L1 and y+ transporters for large neutral and cationic essential amino acids, respectively. These four transporters are expressed at both the luminal and albuminal membranes. Non-essential amino acid transporters (the alanine, serine and cysteine preferring system (ASC), and the alanine preferring system (A)) and excitatory amino acid transporter 1 (EAAT1), EAAT2 and EAAT3 are located at the abluminal side. The ATP-binding cassette (ABC) efflux transporters that are found in the endothelial cells include multidrug resistance protein 1 (ABCB1; also known as ATP-binding cassette subfamily B member 1) and solute carrier organic anion transporter family member 1C1 (OATP1C1). Finally, transporters for peptides or proteins include the endothelial protein C receptor (EPCR) for activated protein C (APC); the insulin receptors (IRs) and the transferrin receptors (TFRs), which are associated with caveolin 1 (CAV1); low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 1 (LRP1) for amyloid-β, peptide transport system 1 (PTS1) for encephalins; and the PTS2 and PTS4–vasopressin V1a receptor (V1AR) for arginine vasopressin.


Transport across the blood–brain barrier. The endothelial cells that form the BBB are connected by tight and adherens junctions, and it is the tight junctions that confer the low paracellular permeability of the BBB1. Small lipophilic molecules, oxygen and carbon dioxide diffuse freely across the endothelial cells, and hence the BBB, but normal brain endothelium lacks fenestrae and has limited vesicular transport.

The high number of mitochondria in endothelial cells reflects a high energy demand for active ATP-dependent transport, conferred by transporters such as the sodium pump ((Na++K+)ATPase) and the ATP-binding cassette (ABC) efflux transporters. Sodium influx and potassium efflux across the abluminal side of the BBB is controlled by (Na++K+)ATPase (Fig. 2). Changes in sodium and potassium levels in the ISF influence the generation of action potentials in neurons and thus directly affect neuronal and synaptic functions1, 12.

Brain endothelial cells express transporters that facilitate the transport of nutrients down their concentration gradients, as described in detail elsewhere1, 14 (Fig. 2). Glucose transporter 1 (GLUT1; also known as solute carrier family 2, facilitated glucose transporter member 1 (SLC2A1)) — the BBB-specific glucose transporter — is of special importance because glucose is a key energy source for the brain.

Monocarboxylate transporter 1 (MCT1), which transports lactate, and the L1 and y+ amino acid transporters are expressed at the luminal and abluminal membranes12, 14. Sodium-dependent excitatory amino acid transporter 1 (EAAT1), EAAT2 and EAAT3 are expressed at the abluminal side of the BBB15 and enable removal of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, from the brain (Fig. 2). Glutamate clearance at the BBB is essential for protecting neurons from overstimulation of glutaminergic receptors, which is neurotoxic16.

ABC transporters limit the penetration of many drugs into the brain17. For example, multidrug resistance protein 1 (ABCB1; also known as ATP-binding cassette subfamily B member 1) controls the rapid removal of ingested toxic lipophilic metabolites17 (Fig. 2). Some ABC transporters also mediate the efflux of nutrients from the endothelium into the ISF. For example, solute carrier organic anion transporter family member 1C1 (OATP1C1) transports thyroid hormones into the brain. MCT8 mediates influx of thyroid hormones from blood into the endothelium18 (Fig. 2).

The transport of circulating peptides across the BBB into the brain is restricted or slow compared with the transport of nutrients19. Carrier-mediated transport of neuroactive peptides controls their low levels in the ISF20, 21, 22, 23, 24 (Fig. 2). Some proteins, including transferrin, insulin, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), leptin25, 26, 27 and activatedprotein C (APC)28, cross the BBB by receptor-mediated transcytosis (Fig. 2).

Circumventricular organs. Several small neuronal structures that surround brain ventricles lack the BBB and sense chemical changes in blood or the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) directly. These brain areas are known as circumventricular organs (CVOs). CVOs have important roles in multiple endocrine and autonomic functions, including the control of feeding behaviour as well as regulation of water and salt metabolism29. For example, the subfornical organ is one of the CVOs that are capable of sensing extracellular sodium using astrocyte-derived lactate as a signal for local neurons to initiate neural, hormonal and behavioural responses underlying sodium homeostasis30. Excessive sodium accumulation is detrimental, and increases in plasma sodium above a narrow range are incompatible with life, leading to cerebral oedema (swelling), seizures and death29.

Vascular-mediated pathophysiology

The key pathways of vascular dysfunction that are linked to neurodegenerative diseases include BBB breakdown, hypoperfusion–hypoxia and endothelial metabolic dysfunction (Fig. 3). This section examines processes that are involved in BBB breakdown at the molecular and cellular levels, and explores the consequences of all three pathways for neuronal function and viability.

Figure 3 | Vascular-mediated neuronal damage and neurodegeneration.

a | Blood–brain barrier (BBB) breakdown that is caused by pericyte detachment leads to leakage of serum proteins and focal microhaemorrhages, with extravasation of red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs release haemoglobin, which is a source of iron. In turn, this metal catalyses the formation of toxic reactive oxygen species (ROS) that mediate neuronal injury. Albumin promotes the development of vasogenic oedema, contributing to hypoperfusion and hypoxia of the nervous tissue, which aggravates neuronal injury. A defective BBB allows several potentially vasculotoxic and neurotoxic proteins (for example, thrombin, fibrin and plasmin) to enter the brain. b | Progressive reductions in cerebral blood flow (CBF) lead to increasing neuronal dysfunction. Mild hypoperfusion, oligaemia, leads to a decrease in protein synthesis, whereas more-severe reductions in CBF, leading to hypoxia, cause an array of detrimental effects.

Blood–brain barrier breakdown. Disruption to tight and adherens junctions, an increase in bulk-flow fluid transcytosis, and/or enzymatic degradation of the capillary basement membrane cause physical breakdown of the BBB.

The levels of many tight junction proteins, their adaptor molecules and adherens junction proteins decrease in Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases that cause dementia1, 9, ALS31, multiple sclerosis32 and various animal models of neurological disease8, 33. These decreases might be partly explained by the fact that vascular-associated matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) activity rises in many neurodegenerative disorders and after ischaemic CNS injury34, 35; tight junction proteins and basement membrane extracellular matrix proteins are substrates for these enzymes34. Lowered expression of messenger RNAs that encode several key tight junction proteins, however, has also been reported in some neurodegenerative disorders, such as ALS31.

Endothelial cell–pericyte interactions are crucial for the formation36, 37and maintenance of the BBB33, 38. Pericyte deficiency can lead to a reduction in expression of certain tight junction proteins, including occludin, claudin 5 and ZO1 (Ref. 33), and to an increase in bulk-flow transcytosis across the BBB, causing BBB breakdown38. Both processes can lead to extravasation of multiple small and large circulating macromolecules (up to 500 kDa) into the brain parenchyma33, 38. Moreover, in mice, an age-dependent progressive loss of pericytes can lead to BBB disruption and microvasular degeneration and, subsequently, neuronal dysfunction, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative changes33. In their lysosomes, pericytes concentrate and degrade multiple circulating exogenous39 and endogenous proteins, including serum immunoglobulins and fibrin33, which amplify BBB breakdown in cases of pericyte deficiency.

BBB breakdown typically leads to an accumulation of various molecules in the brain. The build up of serum proteins such as immunoglobulins and albumin can cause brain oedema and suppression of capillary blood flow8, 33, whereas high concentrations of thrombin lead to neurotoxicity and memory impairment40, and accelerate vascular damage and BBB disruption41. The accumulation of plasmin (derived from circulating plasminogen) can catalyse the degradation of neuronal laminin and, hence, promote neuronal injury42, and high fibrin levels accelerate neurovascular damage6. Finally, an increase in the number of RBCs causes deposition of haemoglobin-derived neurotoxic products including iron, which generates neurotoxic reactive oxygen species (ROS)8, 43(Fig. 3a). In addition to protein-mediated vasogenic oedema, local tissue ischaemia–hypoxia depletes ATP stores, causing (Na++K+)ATPase pumps and Na+-dependent ion channels to stop working and, consequently, the endothelium and astrocytes to swell (known as cytotoxic oedema)44. Upregulation of aquaporin 4 water channels in response to ischaemia facilitates the development of cytotoxic oedema in astrocytes45.

Hypoperfusion and hypoxia. CBF is regulated by local neuronal activity and metabolism, known as neurovascular coupling46. The pial and intracerebral arteries control the local increase in CBF that occurs during brain activation, which is termed ‘functional hyperaemia’. Neurovascular coupling requires intact pial circulation, and for VSMCs and pericytes to respond normally to vasoactive stimuli33, 46, 47. In addition to VSMC-mediated constriction and vasodilation of cerebral arteries, recent studies have shown that pericytes modulate brain capillary diameter through constriction of the vessel wall47, which obstructs capillary flow during ischaemia48. Astrocytes regulate the contractility of intracerebral arteries49, 50.

Progressive CBF reductions have increasingly serious consequences for neurons (Fig. 3b). Briefly, mild hypoperfusion — termed oligaemia — affects protein synthesis, which is required for the synaptic plasticity mediating learning and memory46. Moderate to severe CBF reductions and hypoxia affect ATP synthesis, diminishing (Na++K+)ATPase activity and the ability of neurons to generate action potentials9. In addition, such reductions can lower or increase pH, and alter electrolyte balances and water gradients, leading to the development of oedema and white matter lesions, and the accumulation of glutamate and proteinaceous toxins (for example, amyloid-β and hyperphopshorylated tau) in the brain. A reduction of greater than 80% in CBF results in neuronal death2.

The effect of CBF reductions has been extensively studied at the molecular and cellular levels in relation to Alzheimer’s disease. Reduced CBF and/or CBF dysregulation occurs in elderly individuals at high risk of Alzheimer’s disease before cognitive decline, brain atrophy and amyloid-β accumulation10, 46, 51, 52, 53, 54. In animal models, hypoperfusion can induce or amplify Alzheimer’s disease-like neuronal dysfunction and/or neuropathological changes. For example, bilateral carotid occlusion in rats causes memory impairment, neuronal dysfunction, synaptic changes and amyloid-β oligomerization55, leading to accumulation of neurotoxic amyloid-β oligomers56. In a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, oligaemia increases neuronal amyloid-β levels and neuronal tau phosphophorylation at an epitope that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease-type paired helical filaments57. In rodents, ischaemia leads to the accumulation of hyperphosphorylated tau in neurons and the formation of filaments that resemble those present in human neurodegenerative tauopathies and Alzheimer’s disease58. Mice expressing amyloid-β precursor protein (APP) and transforming growth factor β1 (TGFβ1) develop deficient neurovascular coupling, cholinergic denervation, enhanced cerebral and cerebrovascular amyloid-β deposition, and age-dependent cognitive decline59.

Recent studies have shown that ischaemia–hypoxia influences amyloidogenic APP processing through mechanisms that increase the activity of two key enzymes that are necessary for amyloid-β production; that is, β-secretase and γ-secretase60, 61, 62, 63. Hypoxia-inducible factor 1α (HIF1α) mediates transcriptional increase in β-secretase expression61. Hypoxia also promotes phosphorylation of tau through the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK; also known as extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK)) pathway64, downregulates neprilysin — an amyloid-β-degrading enzyme65 — and leads to alterations in the expression of vascular-specific genes, including a reduction in the expression of the homeobox protein MOX2 gene mesenchyme homeobox 2 (MEOX2) in brain endothelial cells5 and an increase in the expression of the myocardin gene (MYOCD) in VSMCs66. In patients with Alzheimer’s disease and in models of this disorder, these changes cause vessel regression, hypoperfusion and amyloid-β accumulation resulting from the loss of the key amyloid-β clearance lipoprotein receptor (see below). In addition, hypoxia facilitates alternative splicing of Eaat2 mRNA in Alzheimer’s disease transgenic mice before amyloid-β deposition67 and suppresses glutamate reuptake by astrocytes independently of amyloid formation68, resulting in glutamate-mediated neuronal injury that is independent of amyloid-β.

In response to hypoxia, mitochondria release ROS that mediate oxidative damage to the vascular endothelium and to the selective population of neurons that has high metabolic activity. Such damage has been suggested to occur before neuronal degeneration and amyloid-β deposition in Alzheimer’s disease69, 70. Although the exact triggers of hypoxia-mediated neurodegeneration and the role of HIF1α in neurodegeneration versus preconditioning-mediated neuroprotection remain topics of debate, mitochondria-generated ROS seem to have a primary role in the regulation of the HIF1α-mediated transcriptional switch that can activate an array of responses, ranging from mechanisms that increase cell survival and adaptation to mechanisms inducing cell cycle arrest and death71. Whether inhibition of hypoxia-mediated pathogenic pathways will delay onset and/or control progression in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease remains to be determined.

When comparing the contributions of BBB breakdown and hypoperfusion to neuronal injury, it is interesting to consider Meox2+/− mice. Such animals have normal pericyte coverage and an intact BBB but a substantial perfusion deficit5 that is comparable to that found in pericyte-deficient mice that develop BBB breakdown33 Notably, however, Meox2+/− mice show less pronounced neurodegenerative changes than pericyte-deficient mice, indicating that chronic hypoperfusion–hypoxia alone can cause neuronal injury, but not to the same extent as hypoperfusion–hypoxia combined with BBB breakdown.

Endothelial neurotoxic and inflammatory factors. Alterations in cerebrovascular metabolic functions can lead to the secretion of multiple neurotoxic and inflammatory factors72, 73. For example, brain microvessels that have been isolated from individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (but not from neurologically normal age-matched and young individuals) and brain microvessels that have been treated with inflammatory proteins release neurotoxic factors that kill neurons74, 75. These factors include thrombin, the levels of which increase with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease76. Thrombin can injure neurons directly40and indirectly by activating microglia and astrocytes73. Compared with those from age-matched controls, brain microvessels from individuals with Alzheimer’s disease secrete increased levels of multiple inflammatory mediators, such as nitric oxide, cytokines (for example, tumour necrosis factor (TNF), TGFβ1, interleukin-1β (IL-1β) and IL-6), chemokines (for example, CC-chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2; also known as monocyte chemoattractant protein 1 (MCP1)) and IL-8), prostaglandins, MMPs and leukocyte adhesion molecules73. Endothelium-derived neurotoxic and inflammatory factors together provide a molecular link between vascular metabolic dysfunction, neuronal injury and inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease and, possibly, in other neurodegenerative disorders.

Neurovascular changes

This section examines evidence for neurovascular changes during normal ageing and for neurovascular and/or BBB dysfunction in various neurodegenerative diseases, as well as the possibility that vascular defects can precede neuronal changes.

Age-associated neurovascular changes. Normal ageing diminishes brain circulatory functions, including a detectable decay of CBF in the limbic and association cortices that has been suggested to underlie age-related cognitive changes77. Alterations in the cerebral microvasculature, but not changes in neural activity, have been shown to lead to age-dependent reductions in functional hyperaemia in the visual system in cats78 and in the sensorimotor cortex in pericyte-deficient mice33. Importantly, a recent longitudinal CBF study in neurologically normal individuals revealed that people bearing the apolipoprotein E (APOE) ɛ4allele — the major genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease79, 80, 81 — showed greater regional CBF decline in brain regions that are particularly vulnerable to pathological changes in Alzheimer’s disease than did people without this allele82.

A meta-analysis of BBB permeability in 1,953 individuals showed that neurologically healthy humans had an age-dependent increase in vascular permeability83. Moreover, patients with vascular or Alzheimer’s disease-type dementia and leucoaraiosis — a small-vessel disease of the cerebral white matter — had an even greater age-dependent increase in vascular permeability83. Interestingly, an increase in BBB permeability in brain areas with normal white matter in patients with leukoaraiosis has been suggested to play a causal part in disease and the development of lacunar strokes84. Age-related changes in the permeability of the blood–CSF barrier and the choroid plexus have been reported in sheep85.

Vascular pathology. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-causing diseases frequently show focal changes in brain microcirculation. These changes include the appearance of string vessels (collapsed and acellular membrane tubes), a reduction in capillary density, a rise in endothelial pinocytosis, a decrease in mitochondrial content, accumulation of collagen and perlecans in the basement membrane, loss of tight junctions and/or adherens junctions3, 4, 5, 6, 9,46, 86, and BBB breakdown with leakage of blood-borne molecules4, 6,7, 9. The time course of these vascular alterations and how they relate to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease pathology remain unclear, as no protocol that allows the development of the diverse brain vascular pathology to be scored, and hence to be tracked with ageing, has so far been developed and widely validated87. Interestingly, a recent study involving 500 individuals who died between the ages of 69 and 103 years showed that small-vessel disease, infarcts and the presence of more than one vascular pathological change were associated with Alzheimer’s disease-type pathological lesions and dementia in people aged 75 years of age87. These associations were, however, less pronounced in individuals aged 95 years of age, mainly because of a marked ageing-related reduction in Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology relative to a moderate but insignificant ageing-related reduction in vascular pathology87.

Accumulation of amyloid-β and amyloid deposition in pial and intracerebral arteries results in CAA, which is present in over 80% of Alzheimer’s disease cases88. In patients who have Alzheimer’s disease with established CAA in small arteries and arterioles, the VSMC layer frequently shows atrophy, which causes a rupture of the vessel wall and intracerebral bleeding in about 30% of these patients89, 90. These intracerebral bleedings contribute to, and aggravate, dementia. Patients with hereditary cerebral β-amyloidosis and CAA of the Dutch, Iowa, Arctic, Flemish, Italian or Piedmont L34V type have accelerated VSMC degeneration resulting in haemorrhagic strokes and dementia91. Duplication of the gene encoding APP causes early-onset Alzheimer’s disease dementia with CAA and intracerebral haemorrhage92.

Early studies of serum immunoglobulin leakage reported that patients with ALS had BSCB breakdown and BBB breakdown in the motor cortex93. Microhaemorrhages and BSCB breakdown have been shown in the spinal cord of transgenic mice expressing mutant variants of human superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1), which in mice cause an ALS-like disease8, 94, 95. In mice with ALS-like disease and in patients with ALS, BSCB breakdown has been shown to occur before motor neuron degeneration or brain atrophy8, 11, 95.

BBB breakdown in the substantia nigra and the striatum has been detected in murine models of Parkinson’s disease that are induced by administration of 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP)96, 97, 98. However, the temporal relationship between BBB breakdown and neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease is currently unknown. Notably, the prevalence of CAA and vascular lesions increases in Parkinson’s disease99, 100. Vascular lesions in the striatum and lacunar infarcts can cause vascular parkinsonism syndrome101. A recent study reported BBB breakdown in a rat model of Huntington’s disease that is induced with the toxin 3-nitropropionic acid102.

Several studies have established disruption of BBB with a loss of tight junction proteins during neuroinflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis and its murine model, experimental allergic encephalitis. Such disruption facilitates leukocyte infiltration, leading to oliogodendrocyte death, axonal damage, demyelination and lesion development32.

Functional changes in the vasculature. In individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, GLUT1 expression at the BBB decreases103, suggesting a shortage in necessary metabolic substrates. Studies using18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) positron emission tomography (PET) have identified reductions in glucose uptake in asymptomatic individuals with a high risk of dementia104, 105. Several studies have suggested that reduced glucose uptake across the BBB, as seen by FDG PET, precedes brain atrophy104, 105, 106, 107, 108.

Amyloid-β constricts cerebral arteries109. In a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, impairment of endothelium-dependent regulation of neocortical microcirculation110, 111 occurs before amyloid-β accumulation. Recent studies have shown that CD36, a scavenger receptor that binds amyloid-β, is essential for the vascular oxidative stress and diminished functional hyperaemia that occurs in response to amyloid-β exposure112. Neuroimaging studies in patients with Alzheimer’s disease have shown that neurovascular uncoupling occurs before neurodegenerative changes10, 51, 52, 53. Moreover, cognitively normal APOE ɛ4 carriers at risk of Alzheimer’s disease show impaired CBF responses to brain activation in the absence of neurodegenerative changes or amyloid-β accumulation54. Recently, patients with Alzheimer’s disease as well as mouse models of this disease with high cerebrovascular levels of serum response factor (SRF) and MYOCD, the two transcription factors that control VSMC differentiation, have been shown to develop a hypercontractile arterial phenotype resulting in brain hypoperfusion, diminished functional hyperaemia and CAA66, 113. More work is needed to establish the exact role of SRF and MYOCD in the vascular dysfunction that results in the Alzheimer’s disease phenotype and CAA.

PET studies with 11C-verapamil, an ABCB1 substrate, have indicated that the function of ABCB1, which removes multiple drugs and toxins from the brain, decreases with ageing114 and is particularly compromised in the midbrain of patients with Parkinson’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy or multiple system atrophy115. More work is needed to establish the exact roles of ABC BBB transporters in neurodegeneration and whether their failure precedes the loss of dopaminergic neurons that occurs in Parkinson’s disease.

In mice with ALS-like disease and in patients with ALS, hypoperfusion and/or dysregulated CBF have been shown to occur before motor neuron degeneration or brain atrophy8, 116. Reduced regional CBF in basal ganglia and reduced blood volume have been reported in pre-symptomatic gene-tested individuals at risk for Huntington’s disease117. Patients with Huntington’s disease display a reduction in vasomotor activity in the cerebral anterior artery during motor activation118.

Vascular and neuronal common growth factors. Blood vessels and neurons share common growth factors and molecular pathways that regulate their development and maintenance119, 120. Angioneurins are growth factors that exert both vasculotrophic and neurotrophic activities121. The best studied angioneurin is vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). VEGF regulates vessel formation, axonal growth and neuronal survival120. Ephrins, semaphorins, slits and netrins are axon guidance factors that also regulate the development of the vascular system121. During embryonic development of the neural tube, blood vessels and choroid plexus secrete IGF2 into the CSF, which regulates the proliferation of neuronal progenitor cells122. Genetic and pharmacological manipulations of angioneurin activity yielded various vascular and cerebral phenotypes121. Given the dual nature of angioneurin action, these studies have not been able to address whether neuronal dysfunction results from a primary insult to neurons and/or whether it is secondary to vascular dysfunction.

Increased levels of VEGF, a hypoxia-inducible angiogenic factor, were found in the walls of intraparenchymal vessels, perivascular deposits, astrocytes and intrathecal space of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and were consistent with the chronic cerebral hypoperfusion and hypoxia that were observed in these individuals73. In addition to VEGF, brain microvessels in Alzheimer’s disease release several molecules that can influence angiogenesis, including IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, TNF, TGFβ, MCP1, thrombin, angiopoietin 2, αVβ3 and αVβ5 integrins, and HIF1α73. However, evidence for increased vascularity in Alzheimer’s disease is lacking. On the contrary, several studies have reported that focal vascular regression and diminished microvascular density occur in Alzheimer’s disease4, 5, 73 and in Alzheimer’s disease transgenic mice123. The reason for this discrepancy is not clear. The anti-angiogenic activity of amyloid-β, which accumulates in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease models, may contribute to hypovascularity123. Conversely, genome-wide transcriptional profiling of brain endothelial cells from patients with Alzheimer’s disease revealed that extremely low expression of vascular-restricted MEOX2 mediates aberrant angiogenic responses to VEGF and hypoxia, leading to capillary death5. This finding raises the interesting question of whether capillary degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease results from unsuccessful vascular repair and/or remodelling. Moreover, mice that lack one Meox2 allele have been shown to develop a primary cerebral endothelial hypoplasia with chronic brain hypoperfusion5, resulting in secondary neurodegenerative changes33.

Does vascular dysfunction cause neuronal dysfunction? In summary, the evidence that is discussed above clearly indicates that vascular dysfunction is tightly linked to neuronal dysfunction. There are many examples to illustrate that primary vascular deficits lead to secondary neurodegeneration, including CADASIL (cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts), an hereditary small-vessel brain disease resulting in multiple small ischaemic lesions, neurodegeneration and dementia124; mutations in SLC2A1 that cause dysfunction of the BBB-specific GLUT1 transporter in humans resulting in seizures; cognitive impairment and microcephaly125; microcephaly and epileptiform discharges in mice with genetic deletion of a single Slc2a1allele126; and neurodegeneration mediated by a single Meox2 homebox gene deletion restricted to the vascular system33. Patients with hereditary cerebral β-amyloidosis and CAA of the Dutch, Iowa, Arctic, Flemish, Italian or Piedmont L34V type provide another example showing that primary vascular dysfunction — which in this case is caused by deposition of vasculotropic amyloid-β mutants in the arterial vessel wall — leads to dementia and intracerebral bleeding. Moreover, as reviewed in the previous sections, recent evidence suggests that BBB dysfunction and/or breakdown, and CBF reductions and/or dysregulation may occur in sporadic Alzheimer’s disease and experimental models of this disease before cognitive decline, amyloid-β deposition and brain atrophy. In patients with ALS and in some experimental models of ALS, CBF dysregulation, BSCB breakdown and spinal cord hypoperfusion have been reported to occur before motor neuron cell death. Whether neurological changes follow or precede vascular dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis remains less clear. However, there is little doubt that vascular injury mediates, amplifies and/or lowers the threshold for neuronal dysfunction and loss in several neurological disorders.

Disease-specific considerations

This section examines how amyloid-β levels are kept low in the brain, a process in which the BBB has a central role, and how faulty BBB-mediated clearance mechanisms go awry in Alzheimer’s disease. On the basis of this evidence and the findings discussed elsewhere in the Review, a new hypothesis for the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease that incorporates the vascular evidence is presented. ALS-specific disease mechanisms relating to the BBB are then examined.

Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid-β clearance from the brain by the BBB is the best studied example of clearance of a proteinaceous toxin from the CNS. Multiple pathways regulate brain amyloid-β levels, including its production and clearance (Fig. 4). Recent studies127, 128, 129 have confirmed earlier findings in multiple rodent and non-human primate models demonstrating that peripheral amyloid-β is an important precursor of brain amyloid-β130, 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136. Moreover, peripheral amyloid-β sequestering agents such as soluble LRP1 (ref.137), anti-amyloid-β antibodies138, 139, 140, gelsolin and the ganglioside GM1 (Ref. 141), or systemic expression of neprilysin142, 143have been shown to reduce the amyloid burden in Alzheimer’s disease mice by eliminating contributions of the peripheral amyloid-β pool to the total brain pool of this peptide.

Figure 4 | The role of blood–brain barrier transport in brain homeostasis of amyloid-β.

Amyloid-β (Aβ) is produced from the amyloid-β precursor protein (APP), both in the brain and in peripheral tissues. Clearance of amyloid-β from the brain normally maintains its low levels in the brain. This peptide is cleared across the blood–brain barrier (BBB) by the low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 1 (LRP1). LRP1 mediates rapid efflux of a free, unbound form of amyloid-β and of amyloid-β bound to apolipoprotein E2 (APOE2), APOE3 or α2-macroglobulin (not shown) from the brain’s interstitial fluid into the blood, and APOE4 inhibits such transport. LRP2 eliminates amyloid-β that is bound to clusterin (CLU; also known as apolipoprotein J (APOJ)) by transport across the BBB, and shows a preference for the 42-amino-acid form of this peptide. ATP-binding cassette subfamily A member 1 (ABCA1; also known as cholesterol efflux regulatory protein) mediates amyloid-β efflux from the brain endothelium to blood across the luminal side of the BBB (not shown). Cerebral endothelial cells, pericytes, vascular smooth muscle cells, astrocytes, microglia and neurons express different amyloid-β-degrading enzymes, including neprilysin (NEP), insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE), tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) and matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which contribute to amyloid-β clearance. In the circulation, amyloid-β is bound mainly to soluble LRP1 (sLRP1), which normally prevents its entry into the brain. Systemic clearance of amyloid-β is mediated by its removal by the liver and kidneys. The receptor for advanced glycation end products (RAGE) provides the key mechanism for influx of peripheral amyloid-β into the brain across the BBB either as a free, unbound plasma-derived peptide and/or by amyloid-β-laden monocytes. Faulty vascular clearance of amyloid-β from the brain and/or an increased re-entry of peripheral amyloid-β across the blood vessels into the brain can elevate amyloid-β levels in the brain parenchyma and around cerebral blood vessels. At pathophysiological concentrations, amyloid-β forms neurotoxic oligomers and also self-aggregates, which leads to the development of cerebral β-amyloidosis and cerebral amyloid angiopathy.

The receptor for advanced glycation end products (RAGE) mediates amyloid-β transport in brain and the propagation of its toxicity. RAGE expression in brain endothelium provides a mechanism for influx of amyloid-β144, 145 and amyloid-β-laden monocytes146 across the BBB, as shown in Alzheimer’s disease models (Fig. 4). The amyloid-β-rich environment in Alzheimer’s disease and models of this disorder increases RAGE expression at the BBB and in neurons147, 148, amplifying amyloid-β-mediated pathogenic responses. Blockade of amyloid-β–RAGE signalling in Alzheimer’s disease is a promising strategy to control self-propagation of amyloid-β-mediated injury.

Several studies in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease and, more recently, in patients with this disorder149 have shown that diminished amyloid-β clearance occurs in brain tissue in this disease. LRP1 plays an important part in the three-step serial clearance of this peptide from brain and the rest of the body150 (Fig. 4). In step one, LRP1 in brain endothelium binds brain-derived amyloid-β at the abluminal side of the BBB, initiating its clearance to blood, as shown in many animal models151, 152, 153, 154, 155, 156 and BBB models in vitro151, 157,158. The vasculotropic mutants of amyloid-β that have low binding affinity for LRP1 are poorly cleared from the brain or CSF151, 159, 160. APOE4, but not APOE3 or APOE2, blocks LRP1-mediated amyloid-β clearance from the brain and, hence, promotes its retention161, whereas clusterin (also known as apolipoprotein J (APOJ)) mediates amyloid-β clearance across the BBB via LRP2 (Ref. 153). APOE and clusterin influence amyloid-β aggregation162, 163. Reduced LRP1 levels in brain microvessels, perhaps in addition to altered levels of ABCB1, are associated with amyloid-β cerebrovascular and brain accumulation during ageing in rodents, non-human primates, humans, Alzheimer’s disease mice and patients with Alzheimer’s disease66, 151, 152, 164, 165, 166. Moreover, recent work has shown that brain LRP1 is oxidized in Alzheimer’s disease167, and may contribute to amyloid-β retention in brain because the oxidized form cannot bind and/or transport amyloid-β137. LRP1 also mediates the removal of amyloid-β from the choroid plexus168.

In step two, circulating soluble LRP1 binds more than 70% of plasma amyloid-β in neurologically normal humans137. In patients with Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and in Alzheimer’s disease mice, amyloid-β binding to soluble LRP1 is compromised due to oxidative changes137, 169, resulting in elevated plasma levels of free amyloid-β isoforms comprising 40 or 42 amino acids (amyloid-β1–40 and amyloid-β1–42). These peptides can then re-enter the brain, as has been shown in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease137. Rapid systemic removal of amyloid-β by the liver is also mediated by LRP1 and comprises step three of the clearance process170.

In brain, amyloid-β is enzymatically degraded by neprilysin171, insulin-degrading enzyme172, tissue plasminogen activator173 and MMPs173,174 in various cell types, including endothelial cells, pericytes, astrocytes, neurons and microglia. Cellular clearance of this peptide by astrocytes and VSMCs is mediated by LRP1 and/or another lipoprotein receptor66, 175. Clearance of amyloid-β aggregates by microglia has an important role in amyloid-β-directed immunotherapy176 and reduction of the amyloid load in brain177. Passive ISF–CSF bulk flow and subsequent clearance through the CSF might contribute to 10–15% of total amyloid-β removal152, 153, 178. In the injured human brain, increasing soluble amyloid-β concentrations in the ISF correlated with improvements in neurological status, suggesting that neuronal activity might regulate extracellular amyloid-β levels179.

The role of BBB dysfunction in amyloid-β accumulation, as discussed above, underlies the contribution of vascular dysfunction to Alzheimer’s disease (see Fig. 5 for a model of vascular damage in Alzheimer’s disease). The amyloid hypothesis for the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease maintains that this peptide initiates a cascade of events leading to neuronal injury and loss and, eventually, dementia180, 181. Here, I present an alternative hypothesis — the two-hit vascular hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease — that incorporates the vascular contribution to this disease, as discussed in this Review (Box 1). This hypothesis states that primary damage to brain microcirculation (hit one) initiates a non-amyloidogenic pathway of vascular-mediated neuronal dysfunction and injury, which is mediated by BBB dysfunction and is associated with leakage and secretion of multiple neurotoxic molecules and/or diminished brain capillary flow that causes multiple focal ischaemic or hypoxic microinjuries. BBB dysfunction also leads to impairment of amyloid-β clearance, and oligaemia leads to increased amyloid-β generation. Both processes contribute to accumulation of amyloid-β species in the brain (hit two), where these peptides exert vasculotoxic and neurotoxic effects. According to the two-hit vascular hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease, tau pathology develops secondary to vascular and/or amyloid-β injury.

Figure 5 | A model of vascular damage in Alzheimer’s disease.

a | In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, small pial and intracerebral arteries develop a hypercontractile phenotype that underlies dysregulated cerebral blood flow (CBF). This phenotype is accompanied by diminished amyloid-β clearance by the vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs). In the later phases of Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid deposition in the walls of intracerebral arteries leads to cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA), pronounced reductions in CBF, atrophy of the VSMC layer and rupture of the vessels causing microbleeds. b | At the level of capillaries in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, blood–brain barrier (BBB) dysfunction leads to a faulty amyloid-β clearance and accumulation of neurotoxic amyloid-β oligomers in the interstitial fluid (ISF), microhaemorrhages and accumulation of toxic blood-derived molecules (that is, thrombin and fibrin), which affect synaptic and neuronal function. Hyperphosphorylated tau (p-tau) accumulates in neurons in response to hypoperfusion and/or rising amyloid-β levels. At this point, microglia begin to sense neuronal injury. In the later stages of the disease in brain capillaries, microvascular degeneration leads to increased deposition of basement membrane proteins and perivascular amyloid. The deposited proteins and amyloid obstruct capillary blood flow, resulting in failure of the efflux pumps, accumulation of metabolic waste products, changes in pH and electrolyte composition and, subsequently, synaptic and neuronal dysfunction. Neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) accumulate in response to ischaemic injury and rising amyloid-β levels. Activation of microglia and astrocytes is associated with a pronounced inflammatory response. ROS, reactive oxygen species.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The cause of sporadic ALS, a fatal adult-onset motor neuron neurodegenerative disease, is not known182. In a relatively small number of patients with inherited SOD1 mutations, the disease is caused by toxic properties of mutant SOD1 (Ref. 183). Mutations in the genes encoding ataxin 2 and TAR DNA-binding protein 43 (TDP43) that cause these proteins to aggregate have been associated with ALS182, 184. Some studies have suggested that abnormal SOD1 species accumulate in sporadic ALS185. Interestingly, studies in ALS transgenic mice expressing a mutant version of human SOD1 in neurons, and in non-neuronal cells neighbouring these neurons, have shown that deletion of this gene from neurons does not influence disease progression186, whereas deletion of this gene from microglia186 or astrocytes187 substantially increases an animal’s lifespan. According to an emerging hypothesis of ALS that is based on studies in SOD1 mutant mice, the toxicity that is derived from non-neuronal neighbouring cells, particularly microglia and astrocytes, contributes to disease progression and motor neuron degeneration186, 187, 188, 189, 190, whereas BBB dysfunction might be critical for disease initiation8, 43, 94, 95. More work is needed to determine whether this concept of disease initiation and progression may also apply to cases of sporadic ALS.

Human data support a role for angiogenic factors and vessels in the pathogenesis of ALS. For example, the presence of VEGF variations (which were identified in large meta-analysis studies) has been linked to ALS191. Angiogenin is another pro-angiogenic gene that is implicated in ALS because heterozygous missense mutations in angiogenin cause familial and sporadic ALS192. Moreover, mice with a mutation that eliminates hypoxia-responsive induction of the Vegf gene (Vegfδ/δ mice) develop late-onset motor neuron degeneration193. Spinal cord ischaemia worsens motor neuron degeneration and functional outcome in Vegfδ/δmice, whereas the absence of hypoxic induction of VEGF in mice that develop motor neuron disease from expression of ALS-linked mutant SOD1G93A results in substantially reduced survival191.

Therapeutic opportunities

Many investigators believe that primary neuronal dysfunction resulting from an intrinsic neuronal disorder is the key underlying event in human neurodegenerative diseases. Thus, most therapeutic efforts for neurodegenerative diseases have so far been directed at the development of so-called ‘single-target, single-action’ agents to target neuronal cells directly and reverse neuronal dysfunction and/or protect neurons from injurious insults. However, most preclinical and clinical studies have shown that such drugs are unable to cure or control human neurological disorders2, 181, 183, 194, 195. For example, although pathological overstimulation of glutaminergic NMDA receptors (NMDARs) has been shown to lead to neuronal injury and death in several disorders, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and Huntington’s disease16, NMDAR antagonists have failed to show a therapeutic benefit in the above-mentioned human neurological disorders.

Recently, my colleagues and I coined the term vasculo-neuronal-inflammatory triad195 to indicate that vascular damage, neuronal injury and/or neurodegeneration, and neuroinflammation comprise a common pathological triad that occurs in multiple neurological disorders. In line with this idea, it is conceivable that ‘multiple-target, multiple-action’ agents (that is, drugs that have more than one target and thus have more than one action) will have a better chance of controlling the complex disease mechanisms that mediate neurodegeneration than agents that have only one target (for example, neurons). According to the vasculo-neuronal-inflammatory triad model, in addition to neurons, brain endothelium, VSMCs, pericytes, astrocytes and activated microglia are all important therapeutic targets.

Here, I will briefly discuss a few therapeutic strategies based on the vasculo-neuronal-inflammatory triad model. VEGF and other angioneurins may have multiple targets, and thus multiple actions, in the CNS120. For example, preclinical studies have shown that treatment of SOD1G93A rats with intracerebroventricular VEGF196 or intramuscular administration of a VEGF-expressing lentiviral vector that is transported retrogradely to motor neurons in SOD1G93A mice197 reduced pathology and extended survival, probably by promoting angiogenesis and increasing the blood flow through the spinal cord as well as through direct neuronal protective effects of VEGF on motor neurons. On the basis of these and other studies, a phase I–II clinical trial has been initiated to evaluate the safety of intracerebroventricular infusion of VEGF in patients with ALS198. Treatment with angiogenin also slowed down disease progression in a mouse model of ALS199.

IGF1 delivery has been shown to promote amyloid-β vascular clearance and to improve learning and memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease200. Local intracerebral implantation of VEGF-secreting cells in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease has been shown to enhance vascular repair, reduce amyloid burden and improve learning and memory201. In contrast to VEGF, which can increase BBB permeability, TGFβ, hepatocyte growth factor and fibroblast growth factor 2 promote BBB integrity by upregulating the expression of endothelial junction proteins121 in a similar way to APC43. However, VEGF and most growth factors do not cross the BBB, so the development of delivery strategies such as Trojan horses is required for their systemic use25.

A recent experimental approach with APC provides an example of a neurovascular medicine that has been shown to favourably regulate multiple pathways in non-neuronal cells and neurons, resulting in vasculoprotection, stabilization of the BBB, neuroprotection and anti-inflammation in several acute and chronic models of the CNS disorders195 (Box 2).

The recognition of amyloid-β clearance pathways (Fig. 4), as discussed above, opens exciting new therapeutic opportunities for Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid-β clearance pathways are promising therapeutic targets for the future development of neurovascular medicines because it has been shown both in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease1 and in patients with sporadic Alzheimer’s disease149 that faulty clearance from brain and across the BBB primarily determines amyloid-β retention in brain, causing the formation of neurotoxic amyloid-β oligomers56 and the promotion of brain and cerebrovascular amyloidosis3. The targeting of clearance mechanisms might also be beneficial in other diseases; for example, the clearance of extracellular mutant SOD1 in familial ALS, the prion protein in prion disorders and α-synuclein in Parkinson’s disease might all prove beneficial. However, the clearance mechanisms for these proteins in these diseases are not yet understood.

Conclusions and perspectives

Currently, no effective disease-modifying drugs are available to treat the major neurodegenerative disorders202, 203, 204. This fact leads to a question: are we close to solving the mystery of neurodegeneration? The probable answer is yes, because the field has recently begun to recognize that, first, damage to neuronal cells is not the sole contributor to disease initiation and progression, and that, second, correcting disease pathways in vascular and glial cells may offer an array of new approaches to control neuronal degeneration that do not involve targeting neurons directly. These realizations constitute an important shift in paradigm that should bring us closer to a cure for neurodegenerative diseases. Here, I raise some issues concerning the existing models of neurodegeneration and the new neurovascular paradigm.

The discovery of genetic abnormalities and associations by linkage analysis or DNA sequencing has broadened our understanding of neurodegeneration204. However, insufficient effort has been made to link genetic findings with disease biology. Another concern for neurodegenerative research is how we should interpret findings from animal models202. Genetically engineered models of human neurodegenerative disorders in Drosophila melanogaster andCaenorhabditis elegans have been useful for dissecting basic disease mechanisms and screening compounds. However, in addition to having much simpler nervous systems, insects and avascular species do not have cerebrovascular and immune systems that are comparable to humans and, therefore, are unlikely to replicate the complex disease pathology that is found in people.

For most neurodegenerative disorders, early steps in the disease processes remain unclear, and biomarkers for these stages have yet to be identified. Thus, it is difficult to predict whether mammalian models expressing human genes and proteins that we know are implicated in the intermediate or later stages of disease pathophysiology, such as amyloid-β or tau in Alzheimer’s disease7, 181, will help us to discover therapies for the early stages of disease and for disease prevention, because the exact role of these pathological accumulations during disease onset remains uncertain. According to the two-hit vascular hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease, incorporating vascular factors that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease into current models of this disease may more faithfully replicate dementia events in humans. Alternatively, by focusing on the comorbidities and the initial cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying early neurovascular dysfunction that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, new models of dementia and neurodegeneration may be developed that do not require the genetic manipulation of amyloid-β or tau expression.

The proposed neurovascular triad model of neurodegenerative diseases challenges the traditional neurocentric view of such disorders. At the same time, this model raises a set of new important issues that require further study. For example, the molecular basis of the neurovascular link with neurodegenerative disorders is poorly understood, in terms of the adhesion molecules that keep the physical association of various cell types together, the molecular crosstalk between different cell types (including endothelial cells, pericytes and astrocytes) and how these cellular interactions influence neuronal activity. Addressing these issues promises to create new opportunities not only to better understand the molecular basis of the neurovascular link with neurodegeneration but also to develop novel neurovascular-based medicines.

The construction of a human BBB molecular atlas will be an important step towards understanding the role of the BBB and neurovascular interactions in health and disease. Achievement of this goal will require identifying new BBB transporters by using genomic and proteomic tools, and by cloning some of the transporters that are already known. Better knowledge of transporters at the human BBB will help us to better understand their potential as therapeutic targets for disease.

Development of higher-resolution imaging methods to evaluate BBB integrity, key transporters’ functions and CBF responses in the microregions of interest (for example, in the entorhinal region of the hippocampus) will help us to understand how BBB dysfunction correlates with cognitive outcomes and neurodegenerative processes in MCI, Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

The question persists: are we missing important therapeutic targets by studying the nervous system in isolation from the influence of the vascular system? The probable answer is yes. However, the current exciting and novel research that is based on the neurovascular model has already begun to change the way that we think about neurodegeneration, and will continue to provide further insights in the future, leading to the development of new neurovascular therapies.


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Author affiliations

  1. Department of Physiology and Biophysics, and Center for Neurodegeneration and Regeneration at the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine, 1501 San Pablo Street, Los Angeles, California 90089, USA.


Retromer in Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease and other neurological disorders.

Scott A. Small and Gregory A. Petsko

Nature Reviews Neuroscience  2015; 16:126-132.


Retromer is a protein assembly that has a central role in endosomal trafficking, and retromer dysfunction has been linked to a growing number of neurological disorders. First linked to Alzheimer disease, retromer dysfunction causes a range of pathophysiological consequences that have been shown to contribute to the core pathological features of the disease. Genetic studies have established that retromer dysfunction is also pathogenically linked to Parkinson disease, although the biological mechanisms that mediate this link are only now being elucidated. Most recently, studies have shown that retromer is a tractable target in drug discovery for these and other disorders of the nervous system.

Yeast has proved to be an informative model organism in cell biology and has provided early insight into much of the molecular machinery that mediates the intracellular transport of proteins1,2. Indeed, the term ‘retromer’ was first introduced in a yeast study in 1998 (Ref. 3). In this study, retromer was referred to as a complex of proteins that was dedicated to transporting cargo in a retrograde direction, from the yeast endosome back to the Golgi.

By 2004, a handful of studies had identified the molecular4 and the functional5, 6 homologies of the mammalian retromer, and in 2005 retromer was linked to its first human disorder, Alzheimer disease (AD)7. At the time, the available evidence suggested that the mammalian retromer might match the simplicity of its yeast homologue. Since then, a dramatic and exponential rise in research focusing on retromer has led to more than 300 publications. These studies have revealed the complexity of the mammalian retromer and its functional diversity in endosomal transport, and have implicated retromer in a growing number of neurological disorders.

New evidence indicates that retromer is a ‘master conductor’ of endosomal sorting and trafficking8. Synaptic function heavily depends on endosomal trafficking, as it contributes to the presynaptic release of neurotransmitters and regulates receptor density in the postsynaptic membrane, a process that is crucial for neuronal plasticity9. Therefore, it is not surprising that a growing number of studies are showing that retromer has an important role in synaptic biology10, 11, 12, 13. These observations may account for why the nervous system seems particularly sensitive to genetic and other defects in retromer. In this Progress article, we briefly review the molecular organization and the functional role of retromer, before discussing studies that have linked retromer dysfunction to several neurological diseases — notably, AD and Parkinson disease (PD).

Function and organization

The endosome is considered a hub for intracellular transport. From the endosome, transmembrane proteins can be actively sorted and trafficked to various intracellular sites via distinct transport routes (Fig. 1a). Studies have shown that the mammalian retromer mediates two of the three transport routes out of endosomes. First, retromer is involved in the retrieval of cargos from endosomes and in their delivery, in a retrograde direction, to the trans-Golgi network (TGN)5,6. Retrograde transport has many cellular functions but, as we describe, it is particularly important for the normal delivery of hydrolases and proteases to the endosomal–lysosomal system. The second transport route in which retromer functions is the recycling of cargos from endosomes back to the cell surface14, 15 (Fig. 1a). It is this transport route that is particularly important for neurons, as it mediates the normal delivery of glutamate and other receptors to the plasma membrane during synaptic remodelling and plasticity10, 11, 12, 13.

Figure 1: Retromer’s endosomal transport function and molecular organization.
Retromer's endosomal transport function and molecular organization.

a | Retromer mediates two transport routes out of endosomes via tubules that extend out of endosomal membranes. The first is the retrograde pathway in which cargo is retrieved from the endosome and trafficked to the trans-Golgi network (TGN). The second is the recycling pathway in which cargo is trafficked back from the endosome to the cell surface. The degradation pathway, which is not mediated by retromer, involves the trafficking of cargo from endosomes to lysosomes for degradation. b | The retromer assembly of proteins can be organized into distinct functional modules, all of which work together as part of retromer’s transport role. The ‘cargo-recognition core’ is the central module of the retromer assembly and comprises a trimer of proteins, in which vacuolar protein sorting-associated protein 26 (VPS26) and VPS29 bind VPS35. The ‘tubulation’ module includes protein complexes that bind the cargo-recognition core and aid in the formation and stabilization of tubules that extend out of endosomes, directing the transport of cargos towards their final destinations. The ‘membrane-recruiting’ proteins recruit the cargo-recognition core to the endosomal membrane. The WAS protein family homologue (WASH) complex of proteins also binds the cargo-recognition core and is involved in endosomal ‘actin remodelling’ to form actin patches, which are important for directing cargos towards retromer’s transport pathways. Retromer cargos includes a range of receptors — which bind the cargo-recognition core — and their ligands. PtdIns3P, phosphatidylinositol-3-phosphate.

As well as extending the endosomal transport routes, recent studies have considerably expanded the number of molecular constituents and what is known about the functional organization of the mammalian retromer. Following this expansion in knowledge of the molecular diversity and organizational complexity, retromer might be best described as a multimodular protein assembly. The protein or group of proteins that make up each module can vary, but each module is defined by its distinct function, and the modules work in unison in support of retromer’s transport role.

Two modules are considered central to the retromer assembly. First and foremost is a trimeric complex that functions as a ‘cargo-recognition core’, which selects and binds to the transmembrane proteins that need to be transported and that reside in endosomal membranes5, 6. This trimeric core comprises vacuolar protein sorting-associated protein 26 (VPS26), VPS29 and VPS35; VPS35 functions as the core’s backbone to which the other two proteins bind16. VPS26 is the only member of the core that has been found to have two paralogues, VPS26a and VPS26b17,18, and studies suggest that VPS26b might be differentially expressed in the brain19, 20. Some studies suggest that VPS26a and VPS26b are functionally redundant21, whereas others suggest that they might form distinct cargo-recognition cores20, 22.

The second central module of the retromer assembly is the ‘tubulation’ module, which is made up of proteins that work together in the formation and the stabilization of tubules that extend out of endosomes and that direct the transport of cargo towards its final destination (Fig. 1b). The proteins in this module, which directly binds the cargo-recognition core, are members of the subgroup of the sorting nexin (SNX) family that are characterized by the inclusion of a carboxy-terminal BIN–amphiphysin–RVS (BAR) domain23. These members include SNX1, SNX2, SNX5 and SNX6 (Refs 24,25). As part of the tubulation module, these SNX-BAR proteins exist in different dimeric combinations, but typically SNX1 interacts with SNX5 or SNX6, and SNX2 interacts with SNX5 or SNX6 (Refs 26,27). The EPS15-homology domain 1 (EHD1) protein can be included in this module, as it is involved in stabilizing the tubules formed by the SNX-BAR proteins28.

A third module of the retromer assembly functions to recruit the cargo-recognition core to endosomal membranes and to stabilize the core once it is there (Fig. 1b). Proteins that are part of this ‘membrane-recruiting’ module include SNX3 (Ref. 29), the RAS-related protein RAB7A30, 31,32 and TBC1 domain family member 5 (TBC1D5), which is a member of the TRE2–BUB2–CDC16 (TBC) family of RAB GTPase-activating proteins (GAPs)28. In addition, the lipid phosphatidylinositol-3-phosphate (PtdIns3P), which is found on endosomal membranes, contributes to recruiting most of the retromer-related SNXs through their phox homology domains33. Interestingly, another SNX with a phox homology domain, SNX27, was recently linked to retromer and its function15, 34. SNX27 functions as an adaptor for binding to PDZ ligand-containing cargos that are destined for transport to the cell surface via the recycling pathway. Thus, according to the functional organization of the retromer assembly, SNX27 belongs to the module that engages in cargo recognition and selection.

Recent studies have identified a fourth module of the retromer assembly. The five proteins in this module — WAS protein family homologue 1 (WASH1), FAM21, strumpellin, coiled-coil domain-containing protein 53 (CCDC53) and KIAA1033 (also known as WASH complex subunit 7) — form the WASH complex and function as an ‘actin-remodelling’ module28, 35, 36 (Fig. 1b). Specifically, the WASH complex functions in the rapid polymerization of actin to create patches of actin filaments on endosomal membranes. The complex is recruited to endosomal membranes by binding VPS35 (Ref. 28), and together they divert cargo towards retromer transport pathways and away from the degradation pathway.

The cargos that are transported by retromer include the receptors that directly bind the cargo-recognition core and the ligands of these receptors that are co-transported with the receptors. The receptors that are transported by retromer that have so far been identified to be the most relevant to neurological diseases are the family of VPS10 domain-containing receptors (including sortilin-related receptor 1 (SORL1; also known as SORLA), sortilin, and SORCS1, SORCS2 and SORCS3)7; the cation-independent mannose-6-phosphate receptor (CIM6PR)6, 5; glutamate receptors10; and phagocytic receptors that mediate the clearing function of microglia37. The most disease-relevant ligand to be identified that is trafficked as retromer cargo is the β-amyloid precursor protein (APP)7, 38, 39, 40, 41, which binds SORL1 and perhaps other VPS10 domain-containing receptors42 at the endosomal membrane.

Retromer dysfunction

Guided by retromer’s established function, and on the basis of empirical evidence, there are three well-defined pathophysiological consequences of retromer dysfunction that have proven to be relevant to AD and nervous system disorders. First, retromer dysfunction can cause cargos that typically transit rapidly through the endosome to reside in the endosome for longer than normal durations, such that they can be pathogenically processed into neurotoxic fragments (for example, APP, when stalled in the endosome, is more likely to be processed into amyloid-β, which is implicated in AD43 (Fig. 2a)). Second, by reducing endosomal outflow via impairment of the recycling pathway, retromer dysfunction can lead to a reduction in the number of cell surface receptors that are important for brain health (for example, microglia phagocytic receptors37 (Fig. 2b)).

Figure 2: The pathophysiology of retromer dysfunction.
The pathophysiology of retromer dysfunction.

Retromer dysfunction has three established pathophysiological consequences. In the examples shown, the left graphic represents a cell with normal retromer function and the right graphic represents a cell with a deficit in retromer function. a | Retromer dysfunction causes increased levels of cargo to reside in endosomes. For example, in primary neurons, retromer transports the β-amyloid precursor protein (APP) out of endosomes. Accordingly, retromer dysfunction increases APP levels in endosomes, leading to accelerated APP processing, resulting in an accumulation of neurotoxic fragments of APP (namely, β-carboxy-terminal fragment (βCTF) and amyloid-β) that are pathogenic in Alzheimer disease. b | Retromer dysfunction causes decreased cargo levels at the cell surface. For example, in microglia, retromer mediates the transport of phagocytic receptors to the cell surface and retromer dysfunction results in a decrease in the delivery of these receptors. Studies suggest that this cellular phenotype might have a pathogenic role in Alzheimer disease. c | Retromer dysfunction causes decreased delivery of proteases to the endosome. Retromer is required for the normal retrograde transport of the cation-independent mannose-6-phosphate receptor (CIM6PR) from the endosome back to the trans-Golgi network (TGN). It is in the TGN that this receptor binds cathepsin D and other proteases, and transports them to the endosome, to support the normal function of the endosomal–lysosomal system. By impairing the retrograde transport of the receptor, retromer dysfunction ultimately leads to reduced delivery of cathepsin D to this system. Cathepsin D deficiency has been shown to disrupt the endosomal–lysosomal system and to trigger tau pathology either within endosomes or secondarily in the cytosol.

The third consequence (Fig. 2c) is a result of the established role that retromer has in the retrograde transport of receptors, such as CIM6PR5, 6 or sortilin44, after these receptors transport proteases from the TGN to the endosome. Once at the endosome, the proteases disengage from the receptors, are released into endosomes and migrate to lysosomes. These proteases function in the endosomal–lysosomal system to degrade proteins, protein oligomers and aggregates45. Retromer functions to transfer the ‘naked’ receptor from the endosome back to the TGN via the retrograde pathway5, 6, allowing the receptors to continue in additional rounds of protease delivery. Accordingly, by reducing the normal retrograde transport of these receptors, retromer dysfunction has been shown to reduce the proper delivery of proteases to the endosomal–lysosomal system5,6, which, as discussed below, is a pathophysiological state linked to several brain disorders.

Although requiring further validation, recent studies suggest that retromer dysfunction might be involved in two other mechanisms that have a role in neurological disease. One study suggested that retromer might be involved in trafficking the transmembrane protein autophagy-related protein 9A (ATG9A) to recycling endosomes, from where it can then be trafficked to autophagosome precursors — a trafficking step that is crucial in the formation and the function of autophagosomes46. Autophagy is an important mechanism by which neurons clear neurotoxic aggregates that accumulate in numerous neurodegenerative diseases47. A second study has suggested that retromer dysfunction might enhance the seeding and the cell-to-cell spread of intracellular neurotoxic aggregates48, which have emerged as novel pathophysiological mechanisms that are relevant to AD49, PD50 and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Alzheimer disease

Retromer was first implicated in AD in a molecular profiling study that relied on functional imaging observations in patients and animal models to guide its molecular analysis7. Collectively, neuroimaging studies confirmed that the entorhinal cortex is the region of the hippocampal circuit that is affected first in AD, even in preclinical stages, and suggested that this effect was independent of ageing (as reviewed in Ref. 51). At the same time, neuroimaging studies identified a neighbouring hippocampal region, the dentate gyrus, that is relatively unaffected in AD52. Guided by this information, a study was carried out in which the two regions of the brain were harvested post mortem from patients with AD and from healthy individuals, intentionally covering a broad range of ages. A statistical analysis was applied to the determined molecular profiles of the regions that was designed to address the following question: among the thousands of profiled molecules, which are the ones that are differentially affected in the entorhinal cortex versus the dentate gyrus, in patients versus controls, but that are not affected by age? The final results led to the determination that the brains of patients with AD are deficient in two core retromer proteins — VPS26 and VPS35 (Ref. 7).

Little was known about the receptors of the neuronal retromer, so to understand how retromer deficiency might be mechanistically linked to AD, an analysis was carried out on the molecular data set that looked for transmembrane molecules for which expression levels correlated with VPS35 expression. The top ‘hit’ was the transcript encoding the transmembrane protein SORL1 (Ref. 43). As SORL1 belongs to the family of VPS10-containing receptors and as VPS10 is the main retromer receptor in yeast3, it was postulated that SORL1 and the family of other VPS10-containing proteins (sortillin, SORCS1, SORCS2 and SORCS3) might function as retromer receptors in neurons7. In addition, SORL1 had recently been reported to bind APP53, so if SORL1 was assumed to be a receptor that is trafficked by retromer, then APP might be the cargo that is co-trafficked by retromer. This led to a model in which retromer traffics APP out of endosomes7, which are the organelles in which APP is most likely to be cleaved by βAPP-cleaving enzyme 1 (BACE1; also known as β-secretase 1)43; this is the initial enzymatic step in the pathogenic processing of APP.

Subsequent studies were required to further establish the pathogenic link between retromer and AD, and to test the proposed model. The pathogenic link was further supported by human genetic studies. First, a genetic study investigating the association between AD, the genes encoding the components of the retromer cargo-recognition core and the family of VPS10-containing receptors found that variants of SORL1 increase the risk of developing AD38. This finding was confirmed by numerous studies, including a recent large-scale AD genome-wide association study54. Other genetic studies identified AD-associated variants in genes encoding proteins that are linked to nearly all modules of the retromer assembly55, including genes encoding proteins of the retromer tubulation module (SNX1), genes encoding proteins of the retromer membrane-recruiting module (SNX3 and RAB7A) and genes encoding proteins of the retromer actin-remodelling module (KIAA1033). In addition, nearly all of the genes encoding the family of VPS10-containing retromer receptors have been found to have variants that associate with AD56. Finally, a study found that brain regions that are differentially affected in AD are deficient in PtdIns3P, which is the phospholipid required for recruiting many sorting nexins to endosomal membranes57. Thus, together with the observation that the brains of patients with AD are deficient in VPS26a and VPS35 (Refs 7,37), all modules in the retromer assembly are implicated in AD.

Studies in mice39, 58, 59, flies39 and cells in culture34, 40, 41, 60, 61 have investigated how retromer dysfunction leads to the pathogenic processing of APP. Although rare discrepancies have been observed among these studies62, when viewed in total, the most consistent findings are that retromer dysfunction causes increased pathogenic processing of APP by increasing the time that APP resides in endosomes. Moreover, these studies have confirmed that SORL1 and other VPS10-containing proteins function as APP receptors that mediate APP trafficking out of endosomes.

Retromer has unexpectedly been linked to microglial abnormalities37 — another core feature of AD — which, on the basis of recent genetic findings, seem to have an upstream role in disease pathogenesis54, 63. A recent study found that microglia harvested from the brains of individuals with AD are deficient in VPS35 and provided evidence suggesting that retromer’s recycling pathway regulates the normal delivery of various phagocytic receptors to the cell surface of microglia37, including the phagocytic receptor triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells 2 (TREM2) (Fig. 2b). Mutations in TREM2 have been linked to AD63, and a recent study indicates that these mutations cause a reduction in its cell surface delivery and accelerate TREM2 degradation, which suggests that the mutations are linked to a recycling defect64. While they are located at the microglial cell surface, these phagocytic receptors function in the clearance of extracellular proteins and other molecules from the extracellular space65. Taken together, these recent studies suggest that defects in the retromer’s recycling pathway can, at least in part, account for the microglial defects observed in the disease.

The microtubule-associated protein tau is the key element of neurofibrillary tangles, which are the other hallmark histological features of AD. Although a firm link between retromer dysfunction and tau toxicity remains to be established, recent insight into tau biology suggests several plausible mechanisms that are worth considering. Tau is a cytosolic protein, but nonetheless, through mechanisms that are still undetermined, it is released into the extracellular space from where it gains access to neuronal endosomes via endocytosis66, 67. In fact, recent studies suggest that the pathogenic processing of tau is triggered after it is endocytosed into neurons and while it resides in endosomes67. Of note, it still remains unknown which specific tau processing step — its phosphorylation, cleavage or aggregation — is an obligate step towards tau-related neurotoxicity. Accordingly, if defects in microglia or in other phagocytic cells reduce their capacity to clear extracellular tau, this would accelerate tau endocytosis in neurons and its pathogenic processing.

A second possibility comes from the established role retromer has in the proper delivery of cathepsin D and other proteases to the endosomal–lysosomal system via CIM6PR or sortilin (Fig. 2c). Studies in sheep, mice and flies68 have shown that cathepsin D deficiency can enhance tau toxicity and that this is mediated by a defective endosomal–lysosomal system68. Whether this mechanism leads to abnormal processing of tau within endosomes or in the cytosol via caspase activation68 remains unclear. As discussed above, retromer dysfunction will lead to a decrease in the normal delivery of cathepsin D to the endosome and will result in endosomal–lysosomal system defects. Retromer dysfunction can therefore be considered as a functional phenocopy of cathepsin D deficiency, which suggests a plausible link between retromer dysfunction and tau toxicity. Nevertheless, although these recent insights establish plausibility and support further investigation into the link between retromer and tau toxicity, whether this link exists and how it may be mediated remain open and outstanding questions.

Parkinson disease

The pathogenic link between retromer and PD is singular and straightforward: exome sequencing has identified autosomal-dominant mutations in VPS35 that cause late-onset PD69, 70, one of a handful of genetic causes of late-onset disease. However, the precise mechanism by which these mutations cause the disease is less clear.

Among a group of recent studies, all46, 48, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76 but one77 strongly suggest that these mutations cause a loss of retromer function. At the molecular level, the mutations do not seem to disrupt mutant VPS35 from interacting normally with VPS26 and VPS29, and from forming the cargo-recognition core. Rather, two studies suggest that the mutations have a restricted effect on the retromer assembly but reduce the ability of VPS35 to associate with the WASH complex46, 75. Studies disagree about the pathophysiological consequences of the mutations. Four studies suggest that the mutations affect the normal retrograde transport of CIM6PR71, 73, 75, 76 from the endosome back to the TGN (Fig. 2c). In this scenario, the normal delivery of cathepsin D to the endosomal–lysosomal system should be reduced and this has been empirically shown73. Cathepsin D has been shown to be the dominant endosomal–lysosomal protease for the normal processing of α-synuclein76, and mutations could therefore lead to abnormal α-synuclein processing and to the formation of α-synuclein aggregates, which are thought to have a key pathogenic role in PD.

A separate study suggested that the mutation might cause a mistrafficking of ATG9, and thereby, as discussed above, reduce the formation and the function of autophagosomes46. Autophagosomes have also been implicated as an intracellular site in which α-synuclein aggregates are cleared. Thus, although future studies are needed to resolve these discrepant findings (which may in fact not be mutually exclusive), these studies are generally in agreement that retromer defects will probably increase the neurotoxic levels of α-synuclein aggregates48.

Several studies in flies71, 74 and in rat neuronal cultures71 provide strong evidence that increasing retromer function by overexpressing VPS35 rescues the neurotoxic effects of the most common PD-causing mutations in leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2). Moreover, a separate study has shown that increasing retromer levels rescues the neurotoxic effect of α-synuclein aggregates in a mouse model48. These findings have immediate therapeutic implications for drugs that increase VPS35 and retromer function, as discussed in the next section, but they also offer mechanistic insight. LRRK2 mutations were found to phenocopy the transport defects caused either by theVPS35 mutations or by knocking down VPS35 (Ref. 71). Together, this and other studies78suggest that LRRK2 might have a role in retromer-dependent transport, but future studies are required to clarify this role.

Other neurological disorders

Besides AD and PD, in which a convergence of findings has established a strong pathogenic link, retromer is being implicated in an increasing number of other neurological disorders. Below, we briefly review three disorders for which the evidence of the involvement of retromer in their pathophysiology is currently the most compelling.

The first of these disorders is Down syndrome (DS), which is caused by an additional copy of chromosome 21. Given the hundreds of genes that are duplicated in DS, it has been difficult to identify which ones drive the intellectual impairments that characterize this condition. A recent elegant study provides strong evidence that a deficiency in the retromer cargo-selection protein SNX27 might be a primary driver for some of these impairments79. This study found that the brains of individuals with DS were deficient in SNX27 and that this deficiency may be caused by an extra copy of a microRNA (miRNA) encoded by human chromosome 21 (the miRNA is produced at elevated levels and thereby decreases SNX27 expression). Consistent with the known role of SNX27 in retromer function, decreased expression of this protein in mice disrupted glutamate receptor recycling in the hippocampus and led to dendritic dysfunction. Importantly, overexpression of SNX27 rescued cognitive and other defects in animal models79, which not only strengthens the causal link between retromer dysfunction and cognitive impairment in DS but also has important therapeutic implications.

Hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) is another disorder linked to retromer. HSP is caused by genetic mutations that affect upper motor neurons and is characterized by progressive lower limb spasticity and weakness. Although there are numerous mutations that cause HSP, most are unified by their effects on intracellular transport80. One HSP-associated gene in particular encodes strumpellin81, which is a member of the WASH complex.

The third disorder linked to retromer is neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis (NCL). NCL is a young-onset neurodegenerative disorder that is part of a larger family of lysosomal storage diseases and is caused by mutations in one of ten identified genes — nine neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis (CLN) genes and the gene encoding cathepsin D82. Besides cathepsin D, for which the link to retromer has been discussed above, CLN3 seems to function in the normal trafficking of CIM6PR83. However, the most direct link to retromer has been recently described for CLN5, which seems to function, at least in part, as a retromer membrane-recruiting protein84.

Retromer as a therapeutic target

As suggested by the first study implicating retromer in AD7, and in several subsequent studies71,85, increasing the levels of retromer’s cargo-recognition core enhances retromer’s transport function. Motivated by this observation and after a decade-long search86, we identified a novel class of ‘retromer pharmacological chaperones’ that can bind and stabilize retromer’s cargo-recognition core and increase retromer levels in neurons61.

Validating the motivating hypothesis, the chaperones were found to enhance retromer function, as shown by the increased transport of APP out of endosomes and a reduction in the accumulation of APP-derived neurotoxic fragments61. Although there are numerous other pharmacological approaches for enhancing retromer function, this success provides the proof-of-principle that retromer is a tractable therapeutic target.

As retromer functions in all cells, a general concern is whether enhancing its function will have toxic adverse effects. However, studies have found that in stark contrast to even mild retromer deficiencies, increasing retromer levels has no obvious negative consequences in yeast, neuronal cultures, flies or mice40, 48, 61, 71. This might make sense because unlike drugs that, for example, function as inhibitors, simply increasing the normal flow of transport through the endosome might not be cytotoxic.

If retromer drugs are safe and can effectively enhance retromer function in the nervous system — which are still outstanding issues — there are two general indications for considering their clinical application. One rests on the idea that these agents will only be efficacious in patients who have predetermined evidence of retromer dysfunction. The most immediate example is that of individuals with PD that is caused by LRRK2 mutations. As discussed above, several ‘preclinical’ studies in flies and neuronal cultures have already established that increasing retromer levels71, 74can reverse the neurotoxic effects of such mutations and, thus, if this approach is proven to be safe, LRRK2-linked PD might be an appropriate indication for clinical trials.

Alternatively, the pathophysiology of a disease might be such that retromer-enhancing drugs would be efficacious regardless of whether there is documented evidence of retromer dysfunction. AD illustrates this point. As reviewed above, current evidence suggests that retromer-enhancing drugs will, at the very least, decrease pathogenic processing of APP in neurons and enhance microglial function, even if there are no pre-existing defects in retromer.

More generally, histological studies comparing the entorhinal cortex of patients with sporadic AD to age-matched controls have documented that enlarged endosomes are a defining cellular abnormality in AD87, 88. Importantly, enlarged endosomes are uniformly observed in a broad range of patients with sporadic AD, which suggests that enlarged endosomes reflect an intracellular site at which molecular aetiologies converge87. In addition, because they are observed in early stages of the disease in regions of the brain without evidence of amyloid pathology87, enlarged endosomes are thought to be an upstream event. Mechanistically, the most likely cause of enlarged endosomes is either too much cargo flowing into endosomes — as occurs, for example, with apolipoprotein E4 (APOE4), which has been shown to accelerate endocytosis89, 90 — or too little cargo flowing out, as observed in retromer dysfunction40, 61 and related transport defects57. By any mechanism, retromer-enhancing drugs might correct this unifying cellular defect and might be expected to be beneficial regardless of the specific aetiology.


The fact that retromer defects, including those derived from bona fide genetic mutations, seem to differentially target the nervous system suggests that the nervous system is differentially dependent on retromer for its normal function. We think that this reflects the unique cellular properties of neurons and how synaptic biology heavily depends on endosomal transport and trafficking. Although plausible, future studies are required to confirm and to test the details of this hypothesis.

However, currently, it is the clinical rather than the basic neuroscience of retromer that is much better understood, with the established pathophysiological consequences of retromer dysfunction providing a mechanistic link to the disorders in which retromer has been implicated. Nevertheless, many questions remain. The two most interesting questions, which are in fact inversions of each other, relate to regional vulnerability in the nervous system. First, why does retromer dysfunction target specific neuronal populations? Second, how can retromer dysfunction cause diseases that target different regions of the nervous system? Recent evidence hints at answers to both questions, which must somehow be rooted in the functional and molecular diversity of retromer.

The type and the extent of retromer defects linked to different disorders might provide pathophysiological clues as well as reasons for differential vulnerability. As discussed, in AD there seem to be across-the-board defects in retromer, such that each module of the retromer assembly as well as multiple retromer cargos have been pathogenically implicated. By contrast, the profile of retromer defects in PD seems to be more circumscribed, involving selective disruption of the interaction between VPS35 and the WASH complex. These insights might agree with histological87, 88 and large-scale genetic studies54 that suggest that endosomal dysfunction is a unifying focal point in the cellular pathogenesis of AD. In contrast, genetics and other studies91suggest that the cellular pathobiology of PD is more distributed, implicating the endosome but other organelles as well, in particular the mitochondria.

Interestingly, studies suggest that the entorhinal cortex — a region that is differentially vulnerable to AD — has unique dendritic structure and function92, which are highly dependent on endosomal transport. We speculate that it is the unique synaptic biology of the entorhinal cortex that can account for why it might be particularly sensitive to defects in endosomal transport in general and retromer dysfunction in particular, and for why this region is the early site of disease. Future studies are required to investigate this hypothesis, as well as to understand why the substantia nigra or other regions that are differentially vulnerable to PD would be particularly sensitive to the more circumscribed defect in retromer.

Perhaps the most important observation for clinical neuroscience is the now well-established fact that increasing levels of retromer proteins enhances retromer function and has already proved capable of reversing defects associated with AD, PD and DS in either cell culture or in animal models. The relationships between protein levels and function are not always simple, but emerging pharmaceutical technologies that selectively and safely increase protein levels are now a tractable goal in drug discovery93. With the evidence mounting that retromer has a pathogenic role in two of the most common neurodegenerative diseases, we think that targeting retromer to increase its functional activity is an important goal that has strong therapeutic promise.


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Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Ageing Brain, Departments of Neurology, Radiology, and Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York 10032, USA.

Scott A. Small

Helen and Robert Appel Alzheimer’s Disease Research Institute, Department of Neurology and Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, New York 10065, USA.

Gregory A. Petsko


See also:

Neurobiol Aging. 2011 Nov;32(11):2109.e1-14. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2011.05.025.
Altered intrinsic neuronal excitability and reduced Na+ currents in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.
Brown JT, Chin J, Leiser SC, Pangalos MN, Randall AD.

Trends Neurosci. 2013 Jun;36(6):325-35. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2013.03.002.
Why size matters – balancing mitochondrial dynamics in Alzheimer’s disease.
DuBoff B, Feany M, Götz J.

Neuron. 2014 Dec 3;84(5):1023-33. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.10.024.
Dendritic structural degeneration is functionally linked to cellular hyperexcitability in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.
Šišková Z, Justus D, Kaneko H, Friedrichs D, Henneberg N, Beutel T, Pitsch J, Schoch S, Becker A, von der Kammer H, Remy S.



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