Cholinergic neuronal and axonal abnormalities are present early in aging and in Alzheimer disease

Changiz Geula*, Nicholas Nagykery, Alexander Nicholas, Chuang Kuo Wu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


A large body of evidence indicates that basal forebrain cholinergic neurons are selectively vulnerable to degeneration early in Alzheimer disease (AD). Recent studies, however, demonstrate reductions in cortical activity of the cholinergic enzyme choline acetyltransferase only in late stages of AD. To address this apparent contradiction, we compared abnormalities in magnocellular basal forebrain cholinergic neurons and their axons in nondemented young (<65 years; n = 6), nondemented old (>65 years; n = 7), pathologically mild (n = 5), and pathologically severe (n = 5) AD cases. Cholinergic axon abnormalities (i.e. thickened fibers and ballooned terminals) were evident in nondemented middle-aged cases, increased in nondemented old cases, and reduced in density in severe AD. This suggests that loss of cortical cholinergic axons in AD occurs preferentially in fibers with these abnormalities. Paired helical filament 1-immunoreactive pretangles and tangles were observed as early as the third decade prior to their appearance in entorhinal/perirhinal cortex; they were increased in mild and severe AD. These results indicate that basal forebrain cholinergic neuron abnormalities are present very early in aging and in the course of AD. Therefore, despite the morphologic alterations, choline acetyltransferase activity, but not necessarily normal neuron functions, may be preserved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-318
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of neuropathology and experimental neurology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2008


  • Aging
  • Alzheimer disease
  • Basal forebrain cholinergic system
  • Pathology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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