It’s well known that carrying one copy of the APOE4 gene variant increases one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease threefold and two copies about tenfold, but the fundamental reasons why and what can be done to help patients remain largely unknown. A study published by an MIT-based team Nov. 16 in Nature provides some new answers as part of a broader line of research that has demonstrated APOE4’s consequences cell type by cell type in the brain.
The new study combines evidence from postmortem human brains, lab-based human brain cell cultures, and Alzheimer’s model mice to show that when people have one or two copies of APOE4, rather than the more common and risk-neutral APOE3 version, cells called oligodendrocytes mismanage cholesterol, failing to transport the fat molecule to wrap the long vine-like axon “wiring” that neurons project to make brain circuit connections. Deficiency of this fatty insulation, called myelin, may be a significant contributor to the pathology and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease because without proper myelination, communications among neurons are degraded.
Recent studies by the research group, led by Picower Professor Li-Huei Tsai, director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Aging Brain Initiative at MIT, have found distinct ways that APOE4 disrupts how fat molecules, or lipids, are handled by key brain cell types including neurons, astrocytes and microglia. In the new study as well as in those, the team has identified compounds that appear in the lab to correct these different problems, yielding potential pharmaceutical-based treatment strategies.
The new study extends that work not only by discovering how APOE4 disrupts myelination, but also by providing the first systematic analysis across major brain cell types using single nucleus RNA sequencing (snRNAseq) to compare how gene expression differs in people with APOE4 compared to APOE3.
“This paper shows very clearly from the snRNAseq of postmortem human brains in a genotype specific manner that APOE4 influences different brain cell types very distinctly,” said Tsai, a member of MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences faculty. “We see convergence of lipid metabolism being disrupted, but when you really look into further detail at the kind of lipid pathways being disturbed in different brain cell types, they are all different.
“I feel that lipid dysregulation could be this very fundamental biology underlying a lot of the pathology we observe,” she said.
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