Alzheimer’s disease has gained a lot of attention in the past week or so due to new findings about Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) published in Nature1. ApoE genotype has long been known to be a major risk factor for Alzheimer disease. Of the known alleles of this gene, one variant (ApoE4) increases Alzheimer’s severity and risk, while the ApoE2 allele is protective2.
The new research from Shi et al. overturns the idea that ApoE affects Alzheimer’s pathology by affecting amyloid-β plaque formation3. Instead, these researchers show that ApoE affects inflammation and tau-mediated neurodegeneration independently of amyloid-β pathology. Their data suggest that the ApoE4 variant is a gain-of-function mutation that causes increased neurodegeneration in response to tau neurofibrillary tangles. The other ApoE variants have reduced neurodegeneration, while mice lacking ApoE entirely showed virtually no Alzheimer’s-like neurodegeneration.
This research made use of a series of two-part mouse models3. Transgenic mice expressing a mutant form of the human tau gene (P301S) develop neurofibrillary tangles, and recapitulate many aspects of human Alzheimer’s disease. Shi et al. introduced this P301S tau transgene into ApoE knockout mice or into humanized, knockin mice carrying the human ApoE gene of one of the three variants (ApoE2, ApoE3, or ApoE4).
Not only did Shi et al. find that P301S/ApoE4 mice had much less brain tissue loss and inflammation than P301S/ApoE2 and P301S/ApoE3 mice, but they also showed that P301S/ApoE-KO mice had no brain damage. In vitro co-culturing studies suggested that ApoE (particularly ApoE4) mediates neurodegeneration by initiating a harmful immune response.
Together, these data suggest that inactivation of ApoE in the brain may be an effective way to prevent neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease and in other tau-associated neuropathies. Reassuringly, individuals lacking functional ApoE due to mutations show no obvious neurological defects, suggesting that ApoE may not be necessary in the human brain4.
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