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J Neural Transm Suppl. 2000;59:95-114.

Mechanisms of cell death in neurodegenerative disorders.

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Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Clinical Neurobiology, Psychiatric Hospital, Vienna, Austria.



Progressive cell loss in specific neuronal populations is the prominent pathological hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases, but its molecular basis remains unresolved. Apoptotic cell death has been implicated as a general mechanism in Alzheimer disease (AD) and other neurodegenerative disorders. However, DNA fragmention in neurons is too frequent to account for the continuous loss in these slowly progressive diseases.


In 9 cases of morphologically confirmed AD (CERAD criteria, Braak stages 5 or 6), 5 cases of Parkinson disease (PD) and 3 cases each of Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), and 7 age-matched controls, the TUNEL method was used to detect DNA fragmentation, and immunohistochemistry for an array of apoptosis-related proteins (ARP), protooncogenes, and activated caspase-3 were performed.


In AD, a considerable number of hippocampal neurons showed DNA fragmentation with a 3 to 5.7 fold increase related to neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits, but only exceptional neurons displayed apoptotic morphology (1 in 1100-5000) and cytoplasmic immunoreactivity for ARPs and activated caspase-3 (1 in 2600 to 5650 hippocampal neurons), whereas no neurons were labeled in age-matched controls. Caspase-3 immunoreactivity was seen in granules of granulovacuolar degeneration, only rarely colocalized with tau-immunoreactivity. In PD, DLB, and MSA, TUNEL positivity and expression of ARPs or activated caspase-3 was only seen in microglia, rare astrocytes and in oligodendroglia with cytoplasmic inclusions in MSA, but not in nigral or other neurons with or without Lewy bodies. In PSP, only single neurons but oligodendrocytes, some with tau deposits, in brainstem tegmentum and pontine nuclei were TUNEL-positive and expressed both ARPs and activated caspase-3.


These data provide evidence for extremely rare apoptotic neuronal death in AD compatible with the progression of neuronal degeneration in this chronic disease. In other neurodegenerative disorders, apoptosis mainly involves microglia and oligodendroglia, while alternative mechanisms of neuronal death may occur. Susceptible cell populations in a proapoptotic environment show increased vulnerability towards metabolic and other pathogenic factors, with autophagy as a possible protective mechanism in early stages of programmed cell death. The intracellular cascade leading to cell death still awaits elucidation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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