Synaptic pathology and glial responses to neuronal injury precede the formation of senile plaques and amyloid deposits in the aging cerebral cortex

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The cerebral cortices of macaques (ranging in age from 10 to 37 years; n = 17) were analyzed by immunocytochemistry and electron microscopy to determine the cellular and subcellular localizations of the amyloid precursor protein and β-amyloid protein, the cellular participants in the formation of senile plaques and parenchymal deposits of the β-amyloid protein, and the temporal/spatial development of these lesions. Amyloid precursor protein was enriched within the cytoplasm of pyramidal and nonpyramidal neuronal cell bodies in young and old monkeys. In the neuropil, amyloid precursor protein was most abundant within dendrites and dendritic spines; few axons, axonal terminals, and resting astrocytes and microglia contained the amyloid precursor protein. At synapses, amyloid precursor protein was found predominantly within postsynaptic elements and was enriched at postsynaptic densities of asymmetrical synapses. The earliest morphological change related to senile plaque formation was an age-related abnormality in the cortical neuropil characterized by the formation of dense bodies within presynaptic terminals and dendrites and an augmented localization of the amyloid precursor protein to astrocytes and microglia. In most monkeys >26 years of age, the neocortical parenchyma exhibited neuritic pathology and plaques characterized by swollen cytoplasmic processes, interspersed somata of neurons, and reactive glia within or at the periphery of senile plaques. Neurites and reactive astrocytes and microglia within these plaques were enriched with the amyloid precursor protein. In diffuse plaques, nonfibrillar β-amyloid protein immunoreactivity was visualized within cytoplasmic lysosomes of neuronal perikarya and dendrites and the cell bodies and processes of activated astrocytes and microglia. In mature plaques, β- amyloid protein immunoreactivity was associated with extracellular fibrils within the parenchyma; some cytoplasmic membranes of degenerating dendrites and somata as well as processes of activated glia showed diffuse intracellular β-amyloid protein immunoreactivity. We conclude that morphological abnormalities at synapses (including changes in both pre- and postsynaptic elements) precede the accumulation of the amyloid precursor protein within neurites and activated astrocytes and microglia as well as the deposition of extracellular fibrillar β-amyloid protein; neuronal perikarya/dendrites and reactive glia containing the amyloid precursor protein are primary sources of the β-amyloid protein within senile plaques; and nonfibrillar β-amyloid protein exists intracellularly within neurons and nonneuronal cells prior to the appearance of extracellular deposits of the β-amyloid protein and the formation of β-pleated fibrils. We hypothesize that age-related perturbations in cell-cell interactions at synapses and subsequent synaptic degeneration and activation of astrocytes and microglia are early events that contribute to the formation of senile plaques and β- amyloid protein deposits within the cerebral cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1358-1381
Number of pages24
JournalAmerican Journal of Pathology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1994

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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