Alzheimer’s disease linked to blood vessel changes in brain

Revealing insights for Alzheimer’s onset and potential treatments.

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The human brain is an intricate and delicate organ, housing billions of neurons and supporting a complex network of blood vessels. The precise regulation of blood flow in the brain is vital for optimal functioning and health. Any disruptions to this delicate balance can have profound implications for cognitive abilities and overall brain health. One condition that significantly affects cerebral vasculature and cognition is Alzheimer’s disease.

Our brain relies on an extensive network of blood vessels, spanning approximately 400 miles, to supply essential nutrients, remove waste, and maintain a protective barrier known as the blood-brain barrier. However, the specific changes occurring within these brain vascular cells in different brain regions, as well as in Alzheimer’s disease, have remained unclear at the single-cell level. To tackle this challenge, a collaborative team of scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and The Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard has recently unveiled a comprehensive molecular atlas of the human brain’s vasculature.

This atlas examines the alterations occurring in Alzheimer’s disease across six brain regions, providing valuable insights into the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the dysregulation of the blood-brain barrier associated with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. Published in Nature Neuroscience on June 1, this research contributes to our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, a leading cause of death that affects a significant portion of the elderly population and leads to severe cognitive decline.

In our complex human brain, various types of cells work together to form an intricate network of blood vessels. Researchers have identified 11 distinct types of vascular cells based on their unique gene expression patterns. These cells include endothelial cells, which control the passage of substances through the blood-brain barrier, pericytes that provide

  • Structural support and regulate blood flow,
  • Smooth muscle cells responsible for blood flow and pressure, and
  • Fibroblasts that surround and stabilize blood vessels.

Additionally, different brain regions exhibit variations in the abundance of these cell types, with neocortical regions having more capillary endothelial cells and fewer fibroblasts compared to subcortical regions, revealing regional differences in the blood-brain barrier composition.

Through detailed annotations of various cell types in the brain vasculature, researchers have discovered significant gene expression changes in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Capillary endothelial cells, responsible for transport, waste removal, and immune surveillance, exhibited the most notable changes, including genes involved in amyloid beta clearance, a key factor in AD pathology. Other dysregulated processes shared among multiple vascular cell types included immune function, glucose homeostasis, and extracellular matrix organization.

Additionally, specific changes were observed in pericytes, endothelial cells, and smooth muscle cells, indicating potential connections between lipid transport, insulin sensing, and Alzheimer’s disease. Single-cell RNA sequencing has provided unprecedented insights into the complexities of neurodegenerative diseases and may lead to new therapeutic avenues.

Understanding the intricate workings of cellular processes and communication in the context of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is crucial for developing effective therapeutic interventions. Researchers have identified key regulators responsible for gene expression changes in AD, providing potential targets for restoring healthy cellular states. 

Additionally, they have uncovered significant alterations in intercellular communication between vascular cells and other brain cells in AD, suggesting opportunities for interventions targeting the vasculature. The study has also linked genetic variants associated with increased AD risk to disrupted gene expression patterns, highlighting potential therapeutic targets.

Notably, the ApoE4 genotype, known to increase AD risk significantly, showed specific changes in vascular cells, emphasizing the importance of transport genes. These findings open new avenues for developing treatments that directly target the blood-brain barrier, offering hope for slowing or halting AD progression. However, further research, collaboration, and clinical trials are necessary to translate these discoveries into viable therapeutics.

Journal Reference:

  1. Sun, N., Akay, L.A., Murdock, M.H. et al. Single-nucleus multi-region transcriptomic analysis of brain vasculature in Alzheimer’s disease. Nature Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1038/s41593-023-01334-3
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