The neurobiology of Alzheimer disease defined by neuroimaging

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Purpose of review

In 2011, a new set of new guidelines for the research diagnosis of three stages of Alzheimer disease was promulgated by the US National Institute of Aging and the Alzheimer Association. For the first time, they include the diagnosis of presymptomatic Alzheimer disease, recognizing that the disease process begins years before cognitive impairment develops. Awareness of this fact has largely been driven by neuroimaging, and particularly by imaging amyloid β (abeta) deposition in the brain, a procedure approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for clinical use in April 2012.

Recent findings

In Alzheimer disease, abeta deposition antecedes, probably by decades, the onset of cognitive impairment. In brain regions with greatest abeta deposition, synaptic dysfunction can be imaged beginning at preclinical stages. In regions that are not identical with the ones with greatest abeta deposition but heavily connected with them, regional atrophy and loss of white-matter anisotropy can be detected later in the course of the disease, near the time when mild cognitive impairment supervenes. Together with neuropsychological testing, imaging can improve the prediction of worsening to Alzheimer disease among patients with mild cognitive impairment.


These findings have huge implications for research on therapeutic approaches to Alzheimer disease. For instance, while so far only patients with the clinical diagnosis have been treated with immunotherapy targeting abeta removal, a consensus is building that to be effective, this therapy should be given in the preclinical stages of the disease, which are assessed most advantageously by means of neuroimaging.

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