Vascular Damage May Affect Progression to Alzheimer’s Dementia

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Guest author: Rachana Tank has a master’s degree in Neuropsychology from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Her goal is to pursue a PhD in psychology exploring cognitive ageing, where her research interests lie.

As we grow older, we tend to become a little forgetful which is thought to be a normal part of ageing, but when does forgetfulness turn into abnormal ageing? Sometimes even slight but noticeable changes in thinking skills can be symptoms of an underlying issue. Alzheimer’s dementia is a continuous process, a progression taking place over many years, during which individuals experience considerable deficits before reaching clinical dementia. Stages leading up to Alzheimer’s dementia are referred to as predementia stages and are considered to be on the spectrum of Alzheimer’s dementia. In such stages, cognitive deficits are typically experienced as deterioration of memory, attention, and language skills.

Predementia stages can include individuals who self-report a decline in cognitive abilities (subjective cognitive impairments), or experience cognitive impairments that can be diagnosed by standardised testing (mild cognitive impairments). Both of these can, but not always, indicate an initial phase of neurodegeneration that may suggest they are in an early stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.

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The difference between normal brain ageing (purple line) and stages of cognitive decline experienced as part of abnormal brain ageing in dementia. Image source

Individuals with subjective or mild cognitive impairments tend to have a higher incidence of future cognitive decline than the general population and more often show Alzheimer related pathology. However, it is still difficult to predict which individuals in these stages will progress to Alzheimer’s dementia.

Differentiating between those who will progress and who will not is a difficult task. However, biomarkers can be utilised to indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s pathology to detect and diagnose predementia stages. Namely, amyloid protein plaques and neurofibrillary tau tangles are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, with amyloid pathology being the earliest identifiable change in the brain. Although amyloid and tau have both been fundamental to understanding and estimating the pathological cascade, there is a lot of emerging evidence to suggest that it is not just tau and amyloid in isolation that contribute to progression of Alzheimer’s pathology and subsequent cognitive symptoms.

As evidence indicates there is more to consider than amyloid and tau, recent research, including my master’s research, investigates mixed Alzheimer’s pathology in early stages. Mixed pathology refers to hallmark Alzheimer pathology, such as amyloid and tau, that coexist with additional abnormalities such as vascular disease. Vascular disease is of particular interest in predementia stages as it is the most common disease to coexist with typical Alzheimer pathology early in the disease process.

Vascular disease can be defined as any condition that affects the arteries, veins, and capillaries responsible for carrying blood to and from the heart. Vascular damage can compromise brain health by reducing blood flow to vital areas, leading to loss of neurons. Such damage to the brain affects how well certain areas function, sometimes leading to decreased cognitive abilities such as language difficulties, attention problems or memory issues. There is evidence that vascular disease shortens time to progression when coexisting with traditional Alzheimer pathology. However, the mechanisms by which they may interact is not known.

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Arterial plaques are one example of vascular disease. Image source

My research investigated mixed pathology in 269 memory clinic patients aged 39 or older with subjective or objective cognitive impairments. Levels of amyloid burden and vascular damage were recorded at baseline and at follow-up between 1 and 5 years later. Those who progressed to Alzheimer’s dementia were then compared to those who did not. Vascular damage was assessed using MRI scans, and level of amyloid pathology was determined via cerebrospinal fluid samples.

The results of my research found that Alzheimer’s disease patients with vascular damage had less amyloid in their brains than Alzheimer’s patients who did not have vascular damage. This suggests that vascular damage may worsen the effects of amyloid plaques on cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. These findings are compatible with other studies that investigated vascular damage in relation to amyloid burden.

Different amounts of amyloid in patients did not show any direct relationship with vascular damage, suggesting that the presence or absence of vascular disease does not influence the presence of Abeta. However, both vascular damage and amyloid pathology increased the risk of progressing to Alzheimer’s dementia significantly, and 93% of individuals who progressed to Alzheimer’s dementia showed abnormal levels of both amyloid and vascular pathology, indicating that both contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s dementia. These research insights help us to better understand early stages and the influencing factors involved. This allows us to develop interventions, for example, promoting cardiovascular health in those at risk by encouraging memory clinic patients to participate in exercise programs.

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