Brain. 2020 Dec 5:awaa395. doi: 10.1093/brain/awaa395. Online ahead of print.
It is currently unclear how amyloid-β and tau deposition are linked to changes in synaptic function and axonal structure over the course of Alzheimer’s disease. Here, we assessed these relationships by measuring presynaptic (synaptosomal-associated protein 25, SNAP25; growth-associated protein 43, GAP43), postsynaptic (neurogranin, NRGN) and axonal (neurofilament light chain) markers in the CSF of individuals with varying levels of amyloid-β and tau pathology based on 18F-flutemetamol PET and 18F-flortaucipir PET. In addition, we explored the relationships between synaptic and axonal markers with cognition as well as functional and anatomical brain connectivity markers derived from resting-state functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging. We found that the presynaptic and postsynaptic markers SNAP25, GAP43 and NRGN are elevated in early Alzheimer’s disease i.e. in amyloid-β-positive individuals without evidence of tau pathology. These markers were associated with greater amyloid-β pathology, worse memory and functional changes in the default mode network. In contrast, neurofilament light chain was abnormal in later disease stages, i.e. in individuals with both amyloid-β and tau pathology, and correlated with more tau and worse global cognition. Altogether, these findings support the hypothesis that amyloid-β and tau might have differential downstream effects on synaptic and axonal function in a stage-dependent manner, with amyloid-related synaptic changes occurring first, followed by tau-related axonal degeneration.