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Posts Tagged ‘glia and neurons’


Schizophrenia, broken-links

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

Runs in the Family

 New findings about schizophrenia rekindle old questions about genes and identity.
BY Annals of Science MARCH 28, 2016 ISSUE      http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/28/the-genetics-of-schizophrenia

http://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/160328_r27877-690.jpg

The author and his father have seen several relatives succumb to mental illness.CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY DAYANITA SINGH FOR THE NEW YORKER

In the winter of 2012, I travelled from New Delhi, where I grew up, to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni. My father accompanied me as a guide and companion, but he was a sullen and brooding presence, lost in a private anguish. He is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his firstborn nephew—the eldest brother’s son. Since 2004, Moni, now fifty-two, has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill (a “lunatic home,” as my father calls it), with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept awash in antipsychotics and sedatives, and an attendant watches, bathes, and feeds him through the day.

My father has never accepted Moni’s diagnosis. Over the years, he has waged a lonely campaign against the psychiatrists charged with his nephew’s care, hoping to convince them that their diagnosis was a colossal error, or that Moni’s broken psyche would somehow mend itself. He has visited the institution in Calcutta twice—once without warning, hoping to see a transformed Moni, living a secretly normal life behind the barred gates. But there was more than just avuncular love at stake for him in these visits. Moni is not the only member of the family with mental illness. Two of my father’s four brothers suffered from various unravellings of the mind. Madness has been among the Mukherjees for generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in a grim suspicion that something of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself.

Rajesh, my father’s third-born brother, had once been the most promising of the Mukherjee boys—the nimblest, the most charismatic, the most admired. But in the summer of 1946, at the age of twenty-two, he began to behave oddly, as if a wire had been tripped in his brain. The most obvious change in his personality was a volatility: good news triggered uncontained outbursts of joy; bad news plunged him into inconsolable desolation. By that winter, the sine curve of Rajesh’s psyche had tightened in its frequency and gained in its amplitude. My father recalls an altered brother: fearful at times, reckless at others, descending and ascending steep slopes of mood, irritable one morning and overjoyed the next. When Rajesh received news of a successful performance on his college exams, he vanished, elated, on a two-night excursion, supposedly “exercising” at a wrestling camp. He was feverish and hallucinating when he returned, and died of pneumonia soon afterward. Only years later, in medical school, did I realize that Rajesh was likely in the throes of an acute manic phase. His mental breakdown was the result of a near-textbook case of bipolar disorder.

Jagu, the fourth-born of my father’s siblings, came to live with us in Delhi in 1975, when I was five years old and he was forty-five. His mind, too, was failing. Tall and rail thin, with a slightly feral look in his eyes and a shock of matted, overgrown hair, he resembled a Bengali Jim Morrison. Unlike Rajesh, whose illness had surfaced in his twenties, Jagu had been troubled from his adolescence. Socially awkward, withdrawn from everyone except my grandmother, he was unable to hold a job or live by himself. By 1975, he had visions, phantasms, and voices in his head that told him what to do. He was still capable of extraordinary bursts of tenderness—when I accidentally smashed a beloved Venetian vase at home, he hid me in his bedclothes and informed my mother that he had “mounds of cash” stashed away, enough to buy “a thousand” replacement vases. But this episode was symptomatic: even his love for me extended the fabric of his psychosis and confabulation.

Unlike Rajesh, Jagu was formally diagnosed. In the late nineteen-seventies, a physician in Delhi examined him and determined that he had schizophrenia. But no medicines were prescribed. Instead, Jagu continued to live at home, half hidden away in my grandmother’s room. (As in many families in India, my grandmother lived with us.) For nearly a decade, she and my father maintained a fragile truce, with Jagu living under her care, eating meals in her room and wearing clothes that she stitched for him. At night, when Jagu was consumed by his fears and fantasies, she put him to bed like a child, with her hand on his forehead. She was his nurse, his housekeeper, his only friend, and, more important, his public defender. When my grandmother died, in 1985, Jagu joined a religious sect in Delhi and disappeared, until his death, a dozen years later.

……

at schizophrenia runs in families was evident even to the person who first defined the illness. In 1911, Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss-German psychiatrist, published a book describing a series of cases of men and women, typically in their teens and early twenties, whose thoughts had begun to tangle and degenerate. “In this malady, the associations lose their continuity,” Bleuler wrote. “The threads between thoughts are torn.” Psychotic visions and paranoid thoughts flashed out of nowhere. Some patients “feel themselves weak, their spirit escapes, they will never survive the day. There is a growth in their heads. Their bones have turned liquid; their hearts have turned into stone. . . . The patient’s wife must not use eggs in cooking, otherwise he will grow feathers.” His patients were often trapped between flickering emotional states, unable to choose between two radically opposed visions, Bleuler noted. “You devil, you angel, you devil, you angel,” one woman said to her lover.

Bleuler tried to find an explanation for the mysterious symptoms, but there was only one seemingly common element: schizophrenic patients tended to have first-degree relatives who were also schizophrenic. He had no tools to understand the mechanism behind the heredity. The word “gene” had been coined just two years before Bleuler published his book. The notion that a mental illness could be carried across generations by unitary, indivisible factors—corpuscles of information threading through families—would have struck most of Bleuler’s contemporaries as mad in its own right. Still, Bleuler was astonishingly prescient about the complex nature of inheritance. “If one is looking for ‘theheredity,’ one can nearly always find it,” he wrote. “We will not be able to do anything about it even later on, unless the single factor of heredity can be broken down into many hereditary factors along specific lines.”

In the nineteen-sixties, Bleuler’s hunch was confirmed by twin studies. Psychiatrists determined that if an identical twin was schizophrenic the other twin had a forty-to-fifty-per-cent chance of developing the disease—fiftyfold higher than the risk in the general population. By the early two-thousands, large population studies had revealed a strong genetic link between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the families described in these studies had a crisscrossing history that was achingly similar to my own: one sibling affected with schizophrenia, another with bipolar disorder, and a nephew or niece also schizophrenic.

“The twin studies clarified two important features of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” Jeffrey Lieberman, a Columbia University psychiatrist who has studied schizophrenia for thirty years, told me. “First, it was clear that there wasn’t a single gene, but dozens of genes involved in causing schizophrenia—each perhaps exerting a small effect. And, second, even if you inherited the entire set of risk genes, as identical twins do, you still might not develop the disease. Obviously, there were other triggers or instigators involved in releasing the illness.” But while these studies established that schizophrenia had a genetic basis, they revealed nothing about the nature of the genes involved. “For doctors, patients, and families in the schizophrenia community, genetics became the ultimate mystery,” Lieberman said. “If we knew the identity of the genes, we would find the causes, and if we found the causes we could find medicines.”

In 2006, an international consortium of psychiatric geneticists launched a genomic survey of schizophrenia, hoping to advance the search for the implicated genes. With 3,322 patients and 3,587 controls, this was one of the largest and most rigorous such studies in the history of the disease. Researchers scanned through the nearly seven thousand genomes to find variations in gene segments that were correlated with schizophrenia. This strategy, termed an “association study,” does not pinpoint a gene, but it provides a general location where a disease-linked gene may be found, like a treasure map with a large “X” scratched in a corner of the genome.

The results, reported in 2009 (and updated in 2014) in the journal Nature, were a dispiriting validation of Bleuler’s hunch about multiple hereditary factors: more than a hundred independent segments of the genome were associated with schizophrenia. “There are lots of small, common genetic effects, scattered across the genome,” one researcher said. “There are many different biological processes involved.” Some of the putative culprits made biological sense—if dimly. There were genes linked to transmitters that relay messages between neurons, and genes for molecular channels that move electrical signals up and down nerve cells. But by far the most surprising association involved a gene segment on chromosome 6. This region of the genome—termed the MHC region—carries hundreds of genes typically associated with the immune system.

“The MHC-segment finding was so strange and striking that you had to sit up and take notice,” Lieberman told me. “Here was the most definitive evidence that something in the immune system might have something to do with schizophrenia. There had been hints about an immunological association before, but this was impossible to argue with. It raised an endlessly fascinating question: what was the link between immune-response genes and schizophrenia?”

The Rogue Immune Cells That Wreck the Brain

Beth Stevens thinks she has solved a mystery behind brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

by Adam Piore   April 4, 2016            https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601137/the-rogue-immune-cells-that-wreck-the-brain/

In the first years of her career in brain research, Beth Stevens thought of microglia with annoyance if she thought of them at all. When she gazed into a microscope and saw these ubiquitous cells with their spidery tentacles, she did what most neuroscientists had been doing for generations: she looked right past them and focused on the rest of the brain tissue, just as you might look through specks of dirt on a windshield.

“What are they doing there?” she thought. “They’re in the way.’”

Stevens never would have guessed that just a few years later, she would be running a laboratory at Harvard and Boston’s Children’s Hospital devoted to the study of these obscure little clumps. Or that she would be arguing in the world’s top scientific journals that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development but also what causes Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, autism, schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.

Microglia are part of a larger class of cells—known collectively as glia—that carry out an array of functions in the brain, guiding its development and serving as its immune system by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and carting away debris. Along with her frequent collaborator and mentor, Stanford biologist Ben Barres, and a growing cadre of other scientists, Stevens, 45, is showing that these long-overlooked cells are more than mere support workers for the neurons they surround. Her work has raised a provocative suggestion: that brain disorders could somehow be triggered by our own bodily defenses gone bad.

A type of glial cell known as an oligodendrocyte

In one groundbreaking paper, in January, Stevens and researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard showed that aberrant microglia might play a role in schizophrenia—causing or at least contributing to the massive cell loss that can leave people with devastating cognitive defects. Crucially, the researchers pointed to a chemical pathway that might be targeted to slow or stop the disease. Last week, Stevens and other researchers published a similar finding for Alzheimer’s.

This might be just the beginning. Stevens is also exploring the connection between these tiny structures and other neurological diseases—work that earned her a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last September.

All of this raises intriguing questions. Is it possible that many common brain disorders, despite their wide-ranging symptoms, are caused or at least worsened by the same culprit, a component of the immune system? If so, could many of these disorders be treated in a similar way—by stopping these rogue cells?

Nature. 2016 Feb 11;530(7589):177-83. http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16549. Epub 2016 Jan 27.   Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4.

Schizophrenia is a heritable brain illness with unknown pathogenic mechanisms. Schizophrenia’s strongest genetic association at a population level involves variation in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, but the genes and molecular mechanisms accounting for this have been challenging to identify. Here we show that this association arises in part from many structurally diverse alleles of the complement component 4 (C4) genes. We found that these alleles generated widely varying levels of C4A and C4B expression in the brain, with each common C4 allele associating with schizophrenia in proportion to its tendency to generate greater expression of C4A. Human C4 protein localized to neuronal synapses, dendrites, axons, and cell bodies. In mice, C4 mediated synapse elimination during postnatal development. These results implicate excessive complement activity in the development of schizophrenia and may help explain the reduced numbers of synapses in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia.

 

Science  31 Mar 2016;        http://dx.doi.org:/10.1126/science.aad8373      Complement and microglia mediate early synapse loss in Alzheimer mouse models.
Soyon Hong1Victoria F. Beja-Glasser1,*Bianca M. Nfonoyim1,*,…., Ben A. Barres6Cynthia A. Lemere,2Dennis J. Selkoe2,7Beth Stevens1,8,

 Synapse loss in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) correlates with cognitive decline. Involvement of microglia and complement in AD has been attributed to neuroinflammation, prominent late in disease. Here we show in mouse models that complement and microglia mediate synaptic loss early in AD. C1q, the initiating protein of the classical complement cascade, is increased and associated with synapses before overt plaque deposition. Inhibition of C1q, C3 or the microglial complement receptor CR3, reduces the number of phagocytic microglia as well as the extent of early synapse loss. C1q is necessary for the toxic effects of soluble β-amyloid (Aβ) oligomers on synapses and hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP). Finally, microglia in adult brains engulf synaptic material in a CR3-dependent process when exposed to soluble Aβ oligomers. Together, these findings suggest that the complement-dependent pathway and microglia that prune excess synapses in development are inappropriately activated and mediate synapse loss in AD.
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) implicate microglia and complement-related pathways in AD (1). Previous research has demonstrated both beneficial and detrimental roles of complement and microglia in plaque-related neuropathology (2, 3); however, their roles in synapse loss, a major pathological correlate of cognitive decline in AD (4), remain to be identified. Emerging research implicates microglia and immune-related mechanisms in brain wiring in the healthy brain (1). During development, C1q and C3 localize to synapses and mediate synapse elimination by phagocytic microglia (57). We hypothesized that this normal developmental synaptic pruning pathway is activated early in the AD brain and mediates synapse loss.

 

Complex machinery

It’s not surprising that scientists for years have ignored microglia and other glial cells in favor of neurons. Neurons that fire together allow us to think, breathe, and move. We see, hear, and feel using neurons, and we form memories and associations when the connections between different neurons strengthen at the junctions between them, known as synapses. Many neuroscientists argue that neurons create our very consciousness.

Glia, on the other hand, have always been considered less important and interesting. They have pedestrian duties such as supplying nutrients and oxygen to neurons, as well as mopping up stray chemicals and carting away the garbage.

Scientists have known about glia for some time. In the 1800s, the pathologist Rudolf Virchow noted the presence of small round cells packing the spaces between neurons and named them “nervenkitt” or “neuroglia,” which can be translated as nerve putty or glue. One variety of these cells, known as astrocytes, was defined in 1893. And then in the 1920s, the Spanish scientist Pio del Río Hortega developed novel ways of staining cells taken from the brain. This led him to identify and name two more types of glial cells, including microglia, which are far smaller than the others and are characterized by their spidery shape and multiple branches. It is only when the brain is damaged in adulthood, he suggested, that microglia spring to life—rushing to the injury, where it was thought they helped clean up the area by eating damaged and dead cells. Astrocytes often appeared on the scene as well; it was thought that they created scar tissue.

This emergency convergence of microglia and astrocytes was dubbed “gliosis,” and by the time Ben Barres entered medical school in the late 1970s, it was well established as a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases, infection, and a wide array of other medical conditions. But no one seemed to understand why it occurred. That intrigued Barres, then a neurologist in training, who saw it every time he looked under a microscope at neural tissue in distress. “It was just really fascinating,” he says. “The great mystery was: what is the point of this gliosis? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it driving the disease process, or is it trying to repair the injured brain?”

 https://youtu.be/6DOYTpXkLOY

Barres began looking for the answer. He learned how to grow glial cells in a dish and apply a new recording technique to them. He could measure their electrical qualities, which determine the biochemical signaling that all brain cells use to communicate and coördinate activity.

“From the second I started recording the glial cells, I thought ‘Oh, my God!’” Barres recalls. The electrical activity was more dynamic and complex than anyone had thought. These strange electrical properties could be explained only if the glial cells were attuned to the conditions around them, and to the signals released from nearby neurons. Barres’s glial cells, in other words, had all the machinery necessary to engage in a complex dialogue with neurons, and presumably to respond to different kinds of conditions in the brain.

Why would they need this machinery, though, if they were simply involved in cleaning up dead cells? What could they possibly be doing? It turns out that in the absence of chemicals released by glia, the neurons committed the biochemical version of suicide. Barres also showed that the astrocytes appeared to play a crucial role in forming synapses, the microscopic connections between neurons that encode memory. In isolation, neurons were capable of forming the spiny appendages necessary to reach the synapses. But without astrocytes, they were incapable of connecting to one another.

Hardly anyone believed him. When he was a young faculty member at Stanford in the 1990s, one of his grant applications to the National Institutes of Health was rejected seven times. “Reviewers kept saying, ‘Nah, there’s no way glia could be doing this,’” Barres recalls. “And even after we published two papers in Science showing that [astrocytes] had profound, almost all-or-nothing effects in controlling synapses’ formation or synapse activity, I still couldn’t get funded! I think it’s still hard to get people to think about glia as doing anything active in the nervous system.”

Marked for elimination

Beth Stevens came to study glia by accident. After graduating from Northeastern University in 1993, she followed her future husband to Washington, D.C., where he had gotten work in the U.S. Senate. Stevens had been pre-med in college and hoped to work in a lab at the National Institutes of Health. But with no previous research experience, she was soundly rebuffed. So she took a job waiting tables at a Chili’s restaurant in nearby Rockville, Maryland, and showed up at NIH with her résumé every week.

After a few months, Stevens received a call from a researcher named Doug Fields, who needed help in his lab. Fields was studying the intricacies of the process in which neurons become insulated in a coating called myelin. That insulation is essential for the transmission of electrical impulses.

As Stevens spent the following years pursuing a PhD at the University of Maryland, she was intrigued by the role that glial cells played in insulating neurons. Along the way, she became familiar with other insights into glial cells that were beginning to emerge, especially from the lab of Ben Barres. Which is why, soon after completing her PhD in 2003, Stevens found herself a postdoc in Barres’s lab at Stanford, about to make a crucial discovery.

Barres’s group had begun to identify the specific compounds astrocytes secreted that seemed to cause neurons to grow synapses. And eventually, they noticed that these compounds also stimulated production of a protein called C1q.

Conventional wisdom held that C1q was activated only in sick cells—the protein marked them to be eaten up by immune cells—and only outside the brain. But Barres had found it in the brain. And it was in healthy neurons that were arguably at their most robust stage: in early development. What was the C1q protein doing there?

https://d267cvn3rvuq91.cloudfront.net/i/images/glia33.jpg?sw=590&cx=0&cy=0&cw=2106&ch=2106

A stained astrocyte.

The answer lies in the fact that marking cells for elimination is not something that happens only in diseased brains; it is also essential for development. As brains develop, their neurons form far more synaptic connections than they will eventually need. Only the ones that are used are allowed to remain. This pruning allows for the most efficient flow of neural transmissions in the brain, removing noise that might muddy the signal.

But it was unknown how exactly the process worked. Was it possible that C1q helped signal the brain to prune unused synapses? Stevens focused her postdoctoral research on finding out. “We could have been completely wrong,” she recalls. “But we went for it.”

It paid off. In a 2007 paper, Barres and Stevens showed that C1q indeed plays a role in eliminating unneeded neurons in the developing brain. And they found that the protein is virtually absent in healthy adult neurons.

Now the scientists faced a new puzzle. Does C1q show up in brain diseases because the same mechanism involved in pruning a developing brain later goes awry? Indeed, evidence was already growing that one of the earliest events in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s was significant loss of synapses.

When Stevens and Barres examined mice bred to develop glaucoma, a neurodegenerative disease that kills neurons in the optic system, they found that C1q appeared long before any other detectable sign that the disease was taking hold. It cropped up even before the cells started dying.

This suggested the immune cells might in fact cause the disease, or at the very least accelerate it. And that offered an intriguing possibility: that something could be made to halt the process. Barres founded a company, Annexon Biosciences, to develop drugs that could block C1q. Last week’s paper published by Barres, Stevens, and other researchers shows that a compound being tested by Annexon appears to be able to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s in mice bred to develop the disease. Now the company hopes to test it in humans in the next two years.

Paths to treatments

To better understand the process that C1q helps trigger, Stevens and Barres wanted to figure out what actually plays the role of Pac-Man, eating up the synapses marked for death. It was well known that white blood cells known as macrophages gobbled up diseased cells and foreign invaders in the rest of the body. But macrophages are not usually present in the brain. For their theory to work, there had to be some other mechanism. And further research has shown that the cells doing the eating even in healthy brains are those mysterious clusters of material that Beth Stevens, for years, had been gazing right past in the microscope—the microglia that Río Hortega identified almost 100 years ago.

Now Stevens’s lab at Harvard, which she opened in 2008, devotes half its efforts to figuring out what microglia are doing and what causes them to do it. These cells, it turns out, appear in the mouse embryo at day eight, before any other brain cell, which suggests they might help guide the rest of brain development—and could contribute to any number of neurodevelopmental diseases when they go wrong.

Meanwhile, she is also expanding her study of the way different substances determine what happens in the brain. C1q is actually just the first in a series of proteins that accumulate on synapses marked for elimination. Stevens has begun to uncover evidence that there is a wide array of protective “don’t eat me” molecules too. It’s the balance between all these cues that regulates whether microglia are summoned to destroy synapses. Problems in any one could, conceivably, mess up the system.

Evidence is now growing that microglia are involved in several neurodevelopmental and psychiatric problems. The potential link to schizophrenia that was revealed in January emerged after researchers at the Broad Institute, led by Steven McCarroll and a graduate student named Aswin Sekar, followed a trail of genetic clues that led them directly to Stevens’s work. In 2009, three consortia from around the globe had published papers comparing DNA in people with and without schizophrenia. It was Sekar who identified a possible pattern: the more a specific type of protein was present in synapses, the higher the risk of developing the disease. The protein, C4, was closely related to C1q, the one first identified in the brain by Stevens and Barres.

McCarroll knew that schizophrenia strikes in late adolescence and early adulthood, a time when brain circuits in the prefrontal cortex undergo extensive pruning. Others had found that areas of the prefrontal cortex are among those most ravaged by the disease, which leads to massive synapse loss. Could it be that over-pruning by rogue microglia is part of what causes schizophrenia?

To find out, Sekar and McCarroll got in touch with Stevens, and the two labs began to hold joint weekly meetings. They soon demonstrated that C4 also had a role in pruning synapses in the brains of young mice, suggesting that excessive levels of the protein could indeed lead to over-pruning—and to the thinning out of brain tissue that appears to occur as symptoms such as psychotic episodes grow worse.

If the brain damage seen in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s stems from over-pruning that might begin early in life, why don’t symptoms of those diseases show up until later? Barres thinks he knows. He notes that the brain can normally compensate for injury by rewiring itself and generating new synapses. It also contains a lot of redundancy. That would explain why patients with Parkinson’s disease don’t show discernible symptoms until they have lost 90 percent of the neurons that produce dopamine.

It also might mean that subtle symptoms could in fact be detected much earlier. Barres points to a study of nuns published in 2000. When researchers analyzed essays the nuns had written upon entering their convents decades before, they found that women who went on to develop Alzheimer’s had shown less “idea density” even in their 20s. “I think the implication of that is they could be lifelong diseases,” Barres says. “The disease process could be going on for decades and the brain is just compensating, rewiring, making new synapses.” At some point, the microglia are triggered to remove too many cells, Barres argues, and the symptoms of the disease begin to manifest fully.

Turning this insight into a treatment is far from straightforward, because much remains unclear. Perhaps an overly aggressive response from microglia is determined by some combination of genetic variants not shared by everyone. Stevens also notes that diseases like schizophrenia are not caused by one mutation; rather, a wide array of mutations with small effects cause problems when they act in concert. The genes that control the production of C4 and other immune-system proteins may be only part of the story. That may explain why not everyone who has a C4 mutation will go on to develop schizophrenia.

Nonetheless, if Barres and Stevens are right that the immune system is a common mechanism behind devastating brain disorders, that in itself is a fundamental breakthrough. Because we have not known the mechanisms that trigger such diseases, medical researchers have been able only to alleviate the symptoms rather than attack the causes. There are no drugs available to halt or even slow neurodegeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some drugs elevate neurotransmitters in ways that briefly make it easier for individuals with dementia to form new synaptic connections, but they don’t reduce the rate at which existing synapses are destroyed. Similarly, there are no treatments that tackle the causes of autism or schizophrenia. Even slowing the progress of these disorders would be a major advance. We might finally go after diseases that have run unchecked for generations.

“We’re a ways away from a cure,” Stevens says. “But we definitely have a path forward.”

Adam Piore is a freelance writer who wrote “A Shocking Way to Fix the Brain”  in November/December 2015.

 

Int Immunopharmacol. 2001 Mar;1(3):365-92.

Genetic, structural and functional diversities of human complement components C4A and C4B and their mouse homologues, Slp and C4.

Blanchong CA1Chung EKRupert KLYang YYang ZZhou BMoulds JMYu CY.

Author information

Abstract

The complement protein C4 is a non-enzymatic component of the C3 and C5 convertases and thus essential for the propagation of the classical complement pathway. The covalent binding of C4 to immunoglobulins and immune complexes (IC) also enhances the solubilization of immune aggregates, and the clearance of IC through complement receptor one (CR1) on erythrocytes. Human C4 is the most polymorphic protein of the complement system. In this review, we summarize the current concepts on the 1-2-3 loci model of C4A and C4B genes in the population, factors affecting the expression levels of C4 transcripts and proteins, and the structural, functional and serological diversities of the C4A and C4B proteins. The diversities and polymorphisms of the mouse homologues Slp and C4 proteins are described and contrasted with their human homologues. The human C4 genes are located in the MHC class III region on chromosome 6. Each human C4 gene consists of 41 exons coding for a 5.4-kb transcript. The long gene is 20.6 kb and the short gene is 14.2 kb. In the Caucasian population 55% of the MHC haplotypes have the 2-locus, C4A-C4B configurations and 45% have an unequal number of C4A and C4B genes. Moreover, three-quarters of C4 genes harbor the 6.4 kb endogenous retrovirus HERV-K(C4) in the intron 9 of the long genes. Duplication of a C4 gene always concurs with its adjacent genes RP, CYP21 and TNX, which together form a genetic unit termed an RCCX module. Monomodular, bimodular and trimodular RCCX structures with 1, 2 and 3 complement C4 genes have frequencies of 17%, 69% and 14%, respectively. Partial deficiencies of C4A and C4B, primarily due to the presence of monomodular haplotypes and homo-expression of C4A proteins from bimodular structures, have a combined frequency of 31.6%. Multiple structural isoforms of each C4A and C4B allotype exist in the circulation because of the imperfect and incomplete proteolytic processing of the precursor protein to form the beta-alpha-gamma structures. Immunofixation experiments of C4A and C4B demonstrate > 41 allotypes in the two classes of proteins. A compilation of polymorphic sites from limited C4 sequences revealed the presence of 24 polymophic residues, mostly clustered C-terminal to the thioester bond within the C4d region of the alpha-chain. The covalent binding affinities of the thioester carbonyl group of C4A and C4B appear to be modulated by four isotypic residues at positions 1101, 1102, 1105 and 1106. Site directed mutagenesis experiments revealed that D1106 is responsible for the effective binding of C4A to form amide bonds with immune aggregates or protein antigens, and H1106 of C4B catalyzes the transacylation of the thioester carbonyl group to form ester bonds with carbohydrate antigens. The expression of C4 is inducible or enhanced by gamma-interferon. The liver is the main organ that synthesizes and secretes C4A and C4B to the circulation but there are many extra-hepatic sites producing moderate quantities of C4 for local defense. The plasma protein levels of C4A and C4B are mainly determined by the corresponding gene dosage. However, C4B proteins encoded by monomodular short genes may have relatively higher concentrations than those from long C4A genes. The 5′ regulatory sequence of a C4 gene contains a Spl site, three E-boxes but no TATA box. The sequences beyond–1524 nt may be completely different as the C4 genes at RCCX module I have RPI-specific sequences, while those at Modules II, III and IV have TNXA-specific sequences. The remarkable genetic diversity of human C4A and C4B probably promotes the exchange of genetic information to create and maintain the quantitative and qualitative variations of C4A and C4B proteins in the population, as driven by the selection pressure against a great variety of microbes. An undesirable accompanying byproduct of this phenomenon is the inherent deleterious recombinations among the RCCX constituents leading to autoimmune and genetic disorders.

 

C4A isotype is responsible for effective binding to form amide bonds with immune aggregates or protein antigens, while C4B isotype catalyzes the transacylation of the thioester carbonyl group to form ester bonds with carbohydrate antigens.

Derived from proteolytic degradation of complement C4, C4a anaphylatoxin is a mediator of local inflammatory process.

 

Schizophrenia and the Synapse

Genetic evidence suggests that overactive synaptic pruning drives development of schizophrenia.

By Ruth Williams | January 27, 2016

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/45189/title/Schizophrenia-and-the-Synapse/

Compared to the brains of healthy individuals, those of people with schizophrenia have higher expression of a gene called C4, according to a paper published inNature today (January 27). The gene encodes an immune protein that moonlights in the brain as an eradicator of unwanted neural connections (synapses). The findings, which suggest increased synaptic pruning is a feature of the disease, are a direct extension of genome-wide association studies (GWASs) that pointed to the major histocompatibility (MHC) locus as a key region associated with schizophrenia risk.

“The MHC [locus] is the first and the strongest genetic association for schizophrenia, but many people have said this finding is not useful,” said psychiatric geneticist Patrick Sullivan of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. “The value of [the present study is] to show that not only is it useful, but it opens up new and extremely interesting ideas about the biology and therapeutics of schizophrenia.”

Schizophrenia has a strong genetic component—it runs in families—yet, because of the complex nature of the condition, no specific genes or mutations have been identified. The pathological processes driving the disease remain a mystery.

Researchers have turned to GWASs in the hope of finding specific genetic variations associated with schizophrenia, but even these have not provided clear candidates.

“There are some instances where genome-wide association will literally hit one base [in the DNA],” explained Sullivan. While a 2014 schizophrenia GWAS highlighted the MHC locus on chromosome 6 as a strong risk area, the association spanned hundreds of possible genes and did not reveal specific nucleotide changes. In short, any hope of pinpointing the MHC association was going to be “really challenging,” said geneticist Steve McCarroll of Harvard who led the new study.

Nevertheless, McCarroll and colleagues zeroed in on the particular region of the MHC with the highest GWAS score—the C4 gene—and set about examining how the area’s structural architecture varied in patients and healthy people.

The C4 gene can exist in multiple copies (from one to four) on each copy of chromosome 6, and has four different forms: C4A-short, C4B-short, C4A-long, and C4B-long. The researchers first examined the “structural alleles” of the C4 locus—that is, the combinations and copy numbers of the different C4 forms—in healthy individuals. They then examined how these structural alleles related to expression of both C4Aand C4B messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in postmortem brain tissues.

…………..

Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4

Aswin Sekar, Allison R. Bialas, Heather de Rivera, …, Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, Mark J. Daly, Michael C. Carroll, Beth Stevens & Steven A. McCarroll

Nature (11 Feb 2016); 530: 177–183 http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16549

Schizophrenia is a heritable brain illness with unknown pathogenic mechanisms. Schizophrenia’s strongest genetic association at a population level involves variation in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, but the genes and molecular mechanisms accounting for this have been challenging to identify. Here we show that this association arises in part from many structurally diverse alleles of the complement component 4 (C4) genes. We found that these alleles generated widely varying levels of C4A and C4B expression in the brain, with each common C4 allele associating with schizophrenia in proportion to its tendency to generate greater expression of C4A. Human C4 protein localized to neuronal synapses, dendrites, axons, and cell bodies. In mice, C4 mediated synapse elimination during postnatal development. These results implicate excessive complement activity in the development of schizophrenia and may help explain the reduced numbers of synapses in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia.

  1. Cannon, T. D. et al. Cortex mapping reveals regionally specific patterns of genetic and disease-specific gray-matter deficits in twins discordant for schizophrenia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 99, 3228–3233 (2002)
  1. Cannon, T. D. et al. Progressive reduction in cortical thickness as psychosis develops: a multisite longitudinal neuroimaging study of youth at elevated clinical risk. Biol. Psychiatry 77,147–157 (2015)
  1. Garey, L. J. et al. Reduced dendritic spine density on cerebral cortical pyramidal neurons in schizophrenia. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry 65, 446–453 (1998)
  1. Glantz, L. A. & Lewis, D. A. Decreased dendritic spine density on prefrontal cortical pyramidal neurons in schizophrenia. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 57, 65–73 (2000)
  1. Glausier, J. R. & Lewis, D. A. Dendritic spine pathology in schizophrenia. Neuroscience 251,90–107 (2013)
  1. Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. Biological insights from 108 schizophrenia-associated genetic loci. Nature 511, 421–427 (2014)
  1. Shi, J. et al. Common variants on chromosome 6p22.1 are associated with schizophrenia. Nature 460, 753–757 (2009)
  1. Stefansson, H. et al. Common variants conferring risk of schizophrenia. Nature 460,744–747 (2009)
  1. International Schizophrenia Consortium et al. Common polygenic variation contributes to risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Nature 460, 748–752 (2009)
  1. Schizophrenia Psychiatric Genome-Wide Association Study Consortium. Genome-wide association study identifies five new schizophrenia loci. Nature Genet . 43, 969–976 (2011)

 

The strongest genetic association found in schizophrenia is its association to genetic markers across the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, first described in three Nature papers in 2009. …

 

Schizophrenia: From genetics to physiology at last

Ryan S. DhindsaDavid B. Goldstein
Nature  (11 Feb 2016); 530:162–163   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16874

  1. Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. Nature511,421–427 (2014).
  2. Stevens, B. et alCell131, 1164–1178 (2007).
  3. Cannon, T. D. et al Psychiatry77, 147–157 (2015).
  4. Glausier, J. R. & Lewis, D. A. Neuroscience251, 90–107 (2013).
  5. Glantz, L. A. & Lewis, D. A.  Gen. Psychiatry57, 65–73 (2000).

 

 Jianxin Shi1, et al.   Common variants on chromosome 6p22.1 are associated with schizophrenia.  Nature 460, 753-757 (6 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08192; Received 29 May 2009; Accepted 10 June 2009; Published online 1 July 2009; Corrected 6 August 2009

Schizophrenia, a devastating psychiatric disorder, has a prevalence of 0.5–1%, with high heritability (80–85%) and complex transmission1. Recent studies implicate rare, large, high-penetrance copy number variants in some cases2, but the genes or biological mechanisms that underlie susceptibility are not known. Here we show that schizophrenia is significantly associated with single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the extended major histocompatibility complex region on chromosome 6. We carried out a genome-wide association study of common SNPs in the Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia (MGS) case-control sample, and then a meta-analysis of data from the MGS, International Schizophrenia Consortium and SGENE data sets. No MGS finding achieved genome-wide statistical significance. In the meta-analysis of European-ancestry subjects (8,008 cases, 19,077 controls), significant association with schizophrenia was observed in a region of linkage disequilibrium on chromosome 6p22.1 (P = 9.54 × 10-9). This region includes a histone gene cluster and several immunity-related genes—possibly implicating aetiological mechanisms involving chromatin modification, transcriptional regulation, autoimmunity and/or infection. These results demonstrate that common schizophrenia susceptibility alleles can be detected. The characterization of these signals will suggest important directions for research on susceptibility mechanisms.

Editor’s Summary   6 August 2009
Schizophrenia risk: link to chromosome 6p22.1

A genome-wide association study using the Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia case-control data set, followed by a meta-analysis that included over 8,000 cases and 19,000 controls, revealed that while common genetic variation that underlies risk to schizophrenia can be identified, there probably are few or no single common loci with large effects. The common variants identified here lie on chromosome 6p22.1 in a region that includes a histone gene cluster and several genes implicated in immunity.

Letter

Hreinn Stefansson1,48, et al. Common variants conferring risk of schizophrenia.
Nature 460, 744-747 (6 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08186; Received 16 March 2009; Accepted 5 June 2009; Published online 1 July 2009

Schizophrenia is a complex disorder, caused by both genetic and environmental factors and their interactions. Research on pathogenesis has traditionally focused on neurotransmitter systems in the brain, particularly those involving dopamine. Schizophrenia has been considered a separate disease for over a century, but in the absence of clear biological markers, diagnosis has historically been based on signs and symptoms. A fundamental message emerging from genome-wide association studies of copy number variations (CNVs) associated with the disease is that its genetic basis does not necessarily conform to classical nosological disease boundaries. Certain CNVs confer not only high relative risk of schizophrenia but also of other psychiatric disorders1, 2, 3. The structural variations associated with schizophrenia can involve several genes and the phenotypic syndromes, or the ‘genomic disorders’, have not yet been characterized4. Single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)-based genome-wide association studies with the potential to implicate individual genes in complex diseases may reveal underlying biological pathways. Here we combined SNP data from several large genome-wide scans and followed up the most significant association signals. We found significant association with several markers spanning the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) region on chromosome 6p21.3-22.1, a marker located upstream of the neurogranin gene (NRGN) on 11q24.2 and a marker in intron four of transcription factor 4 (TCF4) on 18q21.2. Our findings implicating the MHC region are consistent with an immune component to schizophrenia risk, whereas the association with NRGN and TCF4 points to perturbation of pathways involved in brain development, memory and cognition.

 

Letter

The International Schizophrenia Consortium. Common polygenic variation contributes to risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Nature 460, 748-752 (6 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08185; Received 11 February 2009; Accepted 8 June 2009; Published online 1 July 2009; Corrected 6 August 2009

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder with a lifetime risk of about 1%, characterized by hallucinations, delusions and cognitive deficits, with heritability estimated at up to 80%1, 2. We performed a genome-wide association study of 3,322 European individuals with schizophrenia and 3,587 controls. Here we show, using two analytic approaches, the extent to which common genetic variation underlies the risk of schizophrenia. First, we implicate the major histocompatibility complex. Second, we provide molecular genetic evidence for a substantial polygenic component to the risk of schizophrenia involving thousands of common alleles of very small effect. We show that this component also contributes to the risk of bipolar disorder, but not to several non-psychiatric diseases.

 

The Psychiatric GWAS Consortium Steering Committee. A framework for interpreting genome-wide association studies of psychiatric disorders.  Molecular Psychiatry (2009) 14, 10–17; doi:10.1038/mp.2008.126; published online 11 November 2008

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have yielded a plethora of new findings in the past 3 years. By early 2009, GWAS on 47 samples of subjects with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia will be completed. Taken together, these GWAS constitute the largest biological experiment ever conducted in psychiatry (59 000 independent cases and controls, 7700 family trios and >40 billion genotypes). We know that GWAS can work, and the question now is whether it will work for psychiatric disorders. In this review, we describe these studies, the Psychiatric GWAS Consortium for meta-analyses of these data, and provide a logical framework for interpretation of some of the conceivable outcomes.

Keywords: genome-wide association, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia

The purpose of this article is to consider the ‘big picture’ and to provide a logical framework for the possible outcomes of these studies. This is not a review of GWAS per se as many excellent reviews of this technically and statistically intricate methodological approach are available.789101112 This is also not a review of the advantages and disadvantages of different study designs and sampling strategies for the dissection of complex psychiatric traits. We would like to consider how the dozens of GWAS papers that will soon be in the literature can be synthesized: what can integrated mega-analyses (meta-analysis is based on summary data (for example, odds ratios) from all available studies whereas ‘mega-analysis’ uses individual-level genotype and phenotype data) of all available GWAS data tell us about the etiology of these psychiatric disorders? This is an exceptional opportunity as positive or negative results will enable us to learn hard facts about these critically important psychiatric disorders. We suggest that it is not a matter of ‘success versus failure’ or ‘optimism versus pessimism’ but rather an opportunity for systematic and logical approaches to empirical data whereby both positive and appropriately qualified negative findings are informative.

The studies that comprise the Psychiatric GWAS Consortium (PGC; http://pgc.unc.edu) are shown in Table 1. GWAS data for ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia from 42 samples of European subjects should be available for mega-analyses by early 2009 (>59 000 independent cases and controls and >7700 family trios). To our knowledge, the PGC will have access to the largest set of GWAS data available.

A major change in human genetics in the past 5 years has been in the growth of controlled-access data repositories, and individual phenotype and genotype data are now available for many of the studies in Table 1. When the PGC mega-analyses are completed, most data will be available to researchers via the NIMH Human Genetics Initiative (http://nimhgenetics.org). Although the ready availability of GWAS data is a benefit to the field by allowing rapid application of a wide range of analytic strategies to GWAS data, there are potential disadvantages. GWAS mega-analysis is complex and requires considerable care and expertise to be done validly. For psychiatric phenotypes, there is the additional challenge of working with disease entities based largely on clinical description, with unknown biological validity and having both substantial clinical variation within diagnostic categories as well as overlaps across categories.13 Given the urgent need to know if there are replicable genotype–phenotype associations, a new type of collaboration was required.

The purpose of the PGC is to conduct rigorous and comprehensive within- and cross-disorder GWAS mega-analyses. The PGC began in early 2007 with the principal investigators of the four GAIN GWAS,14 and within six months had grown to 110 participating scientists from 54 institutions in 11 countries. The PGC has a coordinating committee, five disease-working groups, a cross-disorder group, a statistical analysis and computational group, and a cluster computer for statistical analysis. It is remarkable that almost all investigators approached agreed to participate and that no one has left the PGC. Most effort is donated but we have obtained funding from the NIMH, the Netherlands Scientific Organization, Hersenstichting Nederland and NARSAD.

The PGC has two major specific aims. (1) Within-disorder mega-analyses: conduct separate mega-analyses of all available GWAS data for ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia to attempt to identify genetic variation convincingly associated with any one of these five disorders. (2) Cross-disorder mega-analyses: the clinically-derived DSM-IV and ICD-10 definitions may not directly reflect the fundamental genetic architecture.15 There are two subaims. (2a) Conduct mega-analysis to identify genetic variation convincingly associated with conventional definitions of two or more disorders. This nosological aim could assist in delineating the boundaries of this set of disorders. (2b) An expert working group will convert epidemiological and genetic epidemiological evidence into explicit hypotheses about overlap among these disorders, and then conduct mega-analyses based on these definitions (for example, to examine the lifetime presence of idiopathic psychotic features without regard to diagnostic context).

The goal of the PGC is to identify convincing genetic variation-disease associations. A convincing association would be extremely unlikely to result from chance, show consistent effect sizes across all or almost all samples and be impervious to vigorous attempts to disprove the finding (for example, by investigating sources of bias, confirmatory genotyping, and so on). Careful attention will be paid to the impact of potential sources of heterogeneity17 with the goal of assessing its impact without minimizing its presence.

Biological plausibility is not an initial requirement for a convincing statistical association, as there are many examples in human genetics of previously unsuspected candidate genes nonetheless showing highly compelling associations. For example, multiple SNPs in intron 1 of the FTO gene were associated with body mass index in 13 cohorts with 38 759 participants18 and yet ‘FTO’ does not appear in an exhaustive 116 page compilation of genetic studies of obesity.19 Some strong associations are in gene deserts: multiple studies have found convincing association between prostate cancer and a region on 8q24 that is ~250 kb from the nearest annotated gene.20 Both of these examples are being intensively investigated and we suspect that a compelling mechanistic ‘story’ will emerge in the near future. The presence of a compelling association without an obvious biological mechanism establishes a priority research area for molecular biology and neuroscience of a psychiatric disorder.

The PGC will use mega-analysis as the main analytic tool as individual-level data will be available from almost all samples. To wield this tool appropriately, a number of preconditions must be met. First, genotype data from different GWAS platforms must be made comparable as the direct overlap between platforms is often modest. This requires meticulous quality control for the inclusion of both SNPs and subjects and attention to the factors that can cause bias (for example, population stratification, cryptic relatedness or genotyping batch effects). Genotype harmonization can be accomplished using imputation (2122, for example) so that the same set of ~2 million2324 directly or imputed SNP genotypes are available for all subjects. Second, phenotypes need to be harmonized across studies. This is one of the most crucial components of the PGC and we are fortunate to have world experts directing the work. Third, the mega-analyses will assess potential heterogeneity of associations across samples.

A decision-tree schematic of the potential outcomes of the PGC mega-analyses is shown in Figure 1. Note that many of the possibilities in Figure 1 are not mutually exclusive and different disorders may take different paths through this framework. It is possible that there eventually will be dozens or hundreds of sequence variants strictly associated with these disorders with frequencies ranging from very rare to common.

………

 

GWAS has the potential to yield considerable insights but it is no panacea and may well perform differently for psychiatric disorders. Even if these psychiatric GWAS efforts are successful, the outcomes will be complex. GWAS may help us learn that clinical syndromes are actually many different things—for example, proportions of individuals with schizophrenia might evidence associations with rare CNVs of major effect,56 with more common genetic variation in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of genomic regions, between genetic variation strongly modified by environmental risk factors, and some proportion may be genetically indistinguishable from the general population. Moreover, as fuel to long-standing ‘lumper versus splitter’ debates in psychiatric nosology, empirical data might show that some clinical disorders or identifiable subsets of subjects might overlap considerably.

The critical advantage of GWAS is the search of a ‘closed’ hypothesis space. If the large amount of GWAS data being generated are analyzed within a strict and coherent framework, it should be possible to establish hard facts about the fundamental genetic architecture of a set of important psychiatric disorders—which might include positive evidence of what these disorders are or exclusionary evidence of what they are not. Whatever the results, these historically large efforts should yield hard facts about ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia that may help guide the next era of psychiatric research.

  1. Pe’er I, Yelensky R, Altshuler D, Daly MJ. Estimation of the multiple testing burden for genomewide association studies of nearly all common variants. Genet Epidemiol 2008; 32: 381–385. | Article | PubMed |
  2. Weiss LA, Shen Y, Korn JM, Arking DE, Miller DT, Fossdal R et al. Association between microdeletion and microduplication at 16p11.2 and autism. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 667–675. | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |

 

Letter

Hreinn Stefansson1,36, et al. Large recurrent microdeletions associated with schizophrenia. Nature 455, 232-236 (11 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07229; Received 17 April 2008; Accepted 8 July 2008; Corrected 11 September 2008

Reduced fecundity, associated with severe mental disorders1, places negative selection pressure on risk alleles and may explain, in part, why common variants have not been found that confer risk of disorders such as autism2, schizophrenia3 and mental retardation4. Thus, rare variants may account for a larger fraction of the overall genetic risk than previously assumed. In contrast to rare single nucleotide mutations, rare copy number variations (CNVs) can be detected using genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism arrays. This has led to the identification of CNVs associated with mental retardation4, 5 and autism2. In a genome-wide search for CNVs associating with schizophrenia, we used a population-based sample to identify de novoCNVs by analysing 9,878 transmissions from parents to offspring. The 66 de novo CNVs identified were tested for association in a sample of 1,433 schizophrenia cases and 33,250 controls. Three deletions at 1q21.1, 15q11.2 and 15q13.3 showing nominal association with schizophrenia in the first sample (phase I) were followed up in a second sample of 3,285 cases and 7,951 controls (phase II). All three deletions significantly associate with schizophrenia and related psychoses in the combined sample. The identification of these rare, recurrent risk variants, having occurred independently in multiple founders and being subject to negative selection, is important in itself. CNV analysis may also point the way to the identification of additional and more prevalent risk variants in genes and pathways involved in schizophrenia.

 

The C4 gene can exist in multiple copies (from one to four) on each copy of chromosome 6, and has four different forms: C4A-short, C4B-short, C4A-long, and C4B-long. The researchers first examined the “structural alleles” of the C4 locus—that is, the combinations and copy numbers of the different C4 forms—in healthy individuals. They then examined how these structural alleles related to expression of both C4Aand C4B messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in postmortem brain tissues.

From this the researchers had a clear picture of how the architecture of the C4 locus affected expression ofC4A and C4B. Next, they compared DNA from roughly 30,000 schizophrenia patients with that from 35,000 healthy controls, and a correlation emerged: the alleles most strongly associated with schizophrenia were also those that were associated with the highest C4A expression. Measuring C4A mRNA levels in the brains of 35 schizophrenia patients and 70 controls then revealed that, on average, C4A levels in the patients’ brains were 1.4-fold higher.

C4 is an immune system “complement” factor—a small secreted protein that assists immune cells in the targeting and removal of pathogens. The discovery of C4’s association to schizophrenia, said McCarroll, “would have seemed random and puzzling if it wasn’t for work . . . showing that other complement components regulate brain wiring.” Indeed, complement protein C3 locates at synapses that are going to be eliminated in the brain, explained McCarroll, “and C4 was known to interact with C3 . . . so we thought well, actually, this might make sense.”

McCarroll’s team went on to perform studies in mice that revealed C4 is necessary for C3 to be deposited at synapses. They also showed that the more copies of the C4 gene present in a mouse, the more the animal’s neurons were pruned.

Synaptic pruning is a normal part of development and is thought to reflect the process of learning, where the brain strengthens some connections and eradicates others. Interestingly, the brains of deceased schizophrenia patients exhibit reduced neuron density. The new results, therefore, “make a lot of sense,” said Cardiff University’s Andrew Pocklington who did not participate in the work. They also make sense “in terms of the time period when synaptic pruning is occurring, which sort of overlaps with the period of onset for schizophrenia: around adolescence and early adulthood,” he added.

“[C4] has not been on anybody’s radar for having anything to do with schizophrenia, and now it is and there’s a whole bunch of really neat stuff that could happen,” said Sullivan. For one, he suggested, “this molecule could be something that is amenable to therapeutics.”

 

 

UniProtKB

Derived from proteolytic degradation of complement C4, C4a anaphylatoxin is a mediator of local inflammatory process. It induces the contraction of smooth muscle, increases vascular permeability and causes histamine release from mast cells and basophilic leukocytes.

Non-enzymatic component of C3 and C5 convertases and thus essential for the propagation of the classical complement pathway. Covalently binds to immunoglobulins and immune complexes and enhances the solubilization of immune aggregates and the clearance of IC through CR1 on erythrocytes. C4A isotype is responsible for effective binding to form amide bonds with immune aggregates or protein antigens, while C4B isotype catalyzes the transacylation of the thioester carbonyl group to form ester bonds with carbohydrate antigens.

 

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Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

 

In addition to the many cellular insults which may contribute to neurodegeneration, there is also a wealth of evidence which suggests that dysfunction of the blood-brain barrier and other CNS vascular insults may also play a key role in Alzheimer’s Disease pathogenesis. This review from Berislav Zlokovic describes much of the recent work into understand how BBB dysfunction contributes to neurodegeneration.    By Tim Spencer on 24 Nov, 2015

 

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

Berislav V. Zlokovic    About the author

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011 Nov 3;12(12):723-38.        http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nrn3114

 

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.

 

 

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.

Figure 1 | Cerebral microcirculation and the neurovascular unit.

Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease and other disorders

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.

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.

Figure 2 | Blood–brain barrier transport mechanisms.

Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease and other disorders

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.

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 activated protein 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.

Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease and other disorders

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, 37 and 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 exogenous39and 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 directly40 and 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) ɛ4 allele — 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 using 18F-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, 111occurs 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 Meox2allele 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 Slc2a1 allele126; 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, 143 have 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.

Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease and other disorders

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.

Neurovascular pathways to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease and other disorders

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 astrocytes187substantially 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/δ mice, 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 triad195to 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).

Box 2 | A model of multiple-target, multiple-action neurovascular medicine

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 inDrosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis 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.

References
  1. Zlokovic, B. V. The blood–brain barrier in health and chronic neurodegenerative disorders. Neuron 57, 178–201 (2008).

  2. Moskowitz, M. A., Lo, E. H. & Iadecola, C. The science of stroke: mechanisms in search of treatments. Neuron 67, 181–198 (2010).
    A comprehensive review describing mechanisms of ischaemic injury to the neurovascular unit.

  3. Zlokovic, B. V. Neurovascular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s neurodegeneration.Trends Neurosci. 28, 202–208 (2005).

  4. Brown, W. R. & Thore, C. R. Review: cerebral microvascular pathology in ageing and neurodegeneration. Neuropathol. Appl. Neurobiol. 37, 56–74 (2011).

  5. Wu, Z. et al. Role of the MEOX2 homeobox gene in neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer disease. Nature Med. 11, 959–965 (2005).
    A study demonstrating that low expression of MEOX2 in brain endothelium leads to aberrant angiogenesis and vascular regression in Alzheimer’s disease.

 

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