Does Alzheimer's disease begin in the brainstem?
Although substantial evidence indicates that the progression of pathological changes of the neuronal cytoskeleton is crucial in determining the severity of dementia in Alzheimer's disease (AD), the exact causes and evolution of these changes, the initial site at which they begin, and the neuronal susceptibility levels for their development are poorly understood. The current clinical criteria for diagnosis of AD are focused mostly on cognitive deficits produced by dysfunction of hippocampal and high-order neocortical areas, whereas noncognitive, behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia such as disturbances in mood, emotion, appetite, and wake-sleep cycle, confusion, agitation and depression have been less considered. The early occurrence of these symptoms suggests brainstem involvement, and more specifically of the serotonergic nuclei. In spite of the fact that the Braak and Braak staging system and National Institutes of Aging - Reagan Institute (NIA-RI) criteria do not include their evaluation, several recent reports drew attention to the possibility of selective and early involvement of raphe nuclei, particularly the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), in the pathogenesis of AD. Based on these findings of differential susceptibility and anatomical connectivity, a novel pathogenetic scheme of AD progression was proposed. Although the precise mechanisms of neurofibrillary degeneration still await elucidation, we speculated that cumulative oxidative damage may be the main cause of DRN alterations, as the age is the main risk factor for sporadic AD. Within such a framework, beta-amyloid production is considered only as one of the factors (although a significant one in familial cases) that promotes molecular series of events underlying AD-related neuropathological changes.