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Neuroscience. 2001;102(4):723-65.

Alzheimer's disease as a disorder of mechanisms underlying structural brain self-organization.

Author information

  • Paul Flechsig Institute of Brain Research, Department of Neuroanatomy, University of Leipzig, Jahnallee 59, D-04109, Leipzig, Germany. aret@medizin.uni-leipzig.de


Mental function has as its cerebral basis a specific dynamic structure. In particular, cortical and limbic areas involved in "higher brain functions" such as learning, memory, perception, self-awareness and consciousness continuously need to be self-adjusted even after development is completed. By this lifelong self-optimization process, the cognitive, behavioural and emotional reactivity of an individual is stepwise remodelled to meet the environmental demands. While the presence of rigid synaptic connections ensures the stability of the principal characteristics of function, the variable configuration of the flexible synaptic connections determines the unique, non-repeatable character of an experienced mental act. With the increasing need during evolution to organize brain structures of increasing complexity, this process of selective dynamic stabilization and destabilization of synaptic connections becomes more and more important. These mechanisms of structural stabilization and labilization underlying a lifelong synaptic remodelling according to experience, are accompanied, however, by increasing inherent possibilities of failure and may, thus, not only allow for the evolutionary acquisition of "higher brain function" but at the same time provide the basis for a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders. It is the objective of the present paper to outline the hypothesis that it might be the disturbance of structural brain self-organization which, based on both genetic and epigenetic information, constantly "creates" and "re-creates" the brain throughout life, that is the defect that underlies Alzheimer's disease (AD). This hypothesis is, in particular, based on the following lines of evidence. (1) AD is a synaptic disorder. (2) AD is associated with aberrant sprouting at both the presynaptic (axonal) and postsynaptic (dendritic) site. (3) The spatial and temporal distribution of AD pathology follows the pattern of structural neuroplasticity in adulthood, which is a developmental pattern. (4) AD pathology preferentially involves molecules critical for the regulation of modifications of synaptic connections, i.e. "morphoregulatory" molecules that are developmentally controlled, such as growth-inducing and growth-associated molecules, synaptic molecules, adhesion molecules, molecules involved in membrane turnover, cytoskeletal proteins, etc. (5) Life events that place an additional burden on the plastic capacity of the brain or that require a particularly high plastic capacity of the brain might trigger the onset of the disease or might stimulate a more rapid progression of the disease. In other words, they might increase the risk for AD in the sense that they determine when, not whether, one gets AD. (6) AD is associated with a reactivation of developmental programmes that are incompatible with a differentiated cellular background and, therefore, lead to neuronal death. From this hypothesis, it can be predicted that a therapeutic intervention into these pathogenetic mechanisms is a particular challenge as it potentially interferes with those mechanisms that at the same time provide the basis for "higher brain function".

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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