The cholinergic system in aging and neuronal degeneration

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RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS▸ Aging-related cognitive impairments are due to loss of cholinergic function. ▸ In inherited and late AD basal forebrain cholinergic cells degenerate. ▸ Mild cognitive impairment characterized by loss of cholinergic function – a step to AD. ▸ Intervention in cholinergic and neurotrophic signaling a useful therapeutic strategy. ▸ β-Amyloid and tau patholgy may trigger cholinergic dysfunction.The basal forebrain cholinergic complex comprising medial septum, horizontal and vertical diagonal band of Broca, and nucleus basalis of Meynert provides the mayor cholinergic projections to the cerebral cortex and hippocampus. The cholinergic neurons of this complex have been assumed to undergo moderate degenerative changes during aging, resulting in cholinergic hypofunction that has been related to the progressing memory deficits with aging.However, the previous view of significant cholinergic cell loss during aging has been challenged. Neuronal cell loss was found predominantly in pathological aging, such as Alzheimer's disease, while normal aging is accompanied by a gradual loss of cholinergic function caused by dendritic, synaptic, and axonal degeneration as well as a decrease in trophic support. As a consequence, decrements in gene expression, impairments in intracellular signaling, and cytoskeletal transport may mediate cholinergic cell atrophy finally leading to the known age-related functional decline in the brain including aging-associated cognitive impairments.However, in pathological situations associated with cognitive deficits, such as Parkinsons's disease, Down-syndrome, progressive supranuclear palsy, Jakob–Creutzfeld disease, Korsakoff's syndrome, traumatic brain injury, significant degenerations of basal forebrain cholinergic cells have been observed. In presenile (early onset), and in the advanced stages of late-onset Alzheimer's disease (AD), a severe loss of cortical cholinergic innervation has extensively been documented. In contrast, in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI, a prodromal stage of AD), and early forms of AD, apparently no cholinergic neurodegeneration but a loss of cholinergic function occurs. In particular imbalances in the expression of NGF, its precursor proNGF, the high and low NGF receptors, trkA and p75NTR, respectively, changes in acetylcholine release, high-affinity choline uptake, as well as alterations in muscarinic and nicotinic acetylcholine receptor expression may contribute to the cholinergic dysfunction. These observations support the suggestion of a key role of the cholinergic system in the functional processes that lead to AD. Malfunction of the cholinergic system may be tackled pharmacologically by intervening in cholinergic as well as neurotrophic signaling cascades that have been shown to ameliorate the cholinergic deficit at early stages of the disease, and slow-down the progression. However, in contrast to many other, dementing disorders, in AD the cholinergic dysfunctions are accompanied by the occurrence of two major histopathological hallmarks such as β-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, provoking the question whether they play a particular role in inducing or mediating cholinergic dysfunction in AD. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that β-amyloid may trigger cholinergic dysfunction through action on α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, affecting NGF signaling, mediating tau phosphorylation, interacting with acetylcholinesterase, and specifically affecting the proteome in cholinergic neurons. Therefore, an early onset of an anti β-amyloid strategy may additionally be potential in preventing aging-associated cholinergic deficits and cognitive impairments.

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