Is sporadic Alzheimer′s disease a developmental disorder?

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Alzheimer′s disease (AD) is a neurodegenerative disorder of higher age that specifically occurs in human. Its clinical phase, characterized by a decline in physiological, psychological, and social functioning, is preceded by a long clinically silent phase of at least several decades that might perhaps even start very early in life. Overall, key functional abilities in AD patients decline in reverse order of the development of these abilities during normal childhood and adolescence. Early symptoms of AD, thus, typically affect mental functions that have been acquired only during very recent hominid evolution and as such are specific to human. Neurofibrillar degeneration, a typical neuropathological lesion of the disease and one of the most robust pathological correlates of cognitive impairment, is rarely seen in non-primate mammals and even non-human primates hardly develop a pathology comparable to those seen in AD patients. Neurofibrillar degeneration is not randomly distributed throughout the AD brain. It preferentially affects brain areas that become increasingly predominant during the evolutionary process of encephalization. During progression of the disease, it affects cortical areas in a stereotypic sequence that inversely recapitulates ontogenetic brain development. The specific distribution of cortical pathology in AD, moreover, appears to be determined by the modular organization of the cerebral cortex which basically is a structural reflection of its ontogeny. Here, we summarize recent evidence that phylogenetic and ontogenetic dimensions of brain structure and function provide the key to our understanding of AD. More recent molecular biological studies of the potential pathogenetic role of a genomic mosaic in the brains of patients with AD might even provide arguments for a developmental origin of AD.


This article is part of a series “Beyond Amyloid”.

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