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Front Neurol Neurosci. 2009;24:20-9. doi: 10.1159/000197881. Epub 2009 Jan 26.

Pathological substrates of cognitive decline in Alzheimer's disease.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Geneva School of Medicine, Chêne-Bourg, Geneva, Switzerland.


The progressive development of Alzheimer's disease (AD)-related lesions such as neurofibrillary tangles,amyloid deposits and synaptic loss within the cerebral cortex is a main event of brain aging.Recent neuropathologic studies strongly suggested that the clinical diagnosis of dementia depends more on the severity and topography of pathologic changes than on the presence of a qualitative marker. However, several methodological problems such as selection biases, case-control design,density-based measures, and masking effects of concomitant pathologies should be taken into account when interpreting these data. In last years, the use of stereologic counting permitted to define reliably the cognitive impact of AD lesions in the human brain. Unlike fibrillar amyloid deposits that are poorly or not related to the dementia severity, the use of this method documented that total neurofibrillary tangles and neuron numbers in the CA1 field are the best correlates of cognitive deterioration in brain aging. Loss of dendritic spines in neocortical but not hippocampal areas has a modest but independent contribution to dementia. In contrast, the importance of early dendritic and axonal tau-related pathologic changes such as neuropil threads remains doubtful. Despite these progresses, neuronal pathology and synaptic loss in cases with pure AD pathology cannot explain more than 50% of clinical severity. The present review discusses the complex structure/function relationships in brain aging and AD within the theoretical framework of the functional neuropathology of brain aging.

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