Brain imaging of neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer’s ......Brain imaging of neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease Axel Montagne1, Daniel A. Nation2, Judy Pa3, Melanie - [PDF Document] (2024)

Brain imaging of neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer’s ......Brain imaging of neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease Axel Montagne1, Daniel A. Nation2, Judy Pa3, Melanie - [PDF Document] (1)

Brain imaging of neurovascular dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease

Axel Montagne1, Daniel A. Nation2, Judy Pa3, Melanie D. Sweeney1, Arthur W. Toga3, and Berislav V. Zlokovic1

1Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute and Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA

2Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA

3Department of Neurology, Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA

Abstract

Neurovascular dysfunction, including blood–brain barrier (BBB) breakdown and cerebral blood

flow (CBF) dysregulation and reduction, are increasingly recognized to contribute to Alzheimer’s

disease (AD). The spatial and temporal relationships between different pathophysiological events

during preclinical stages of AD, including cerebrovascular dysfunction and pathology, amyloid

and tau pathology, and brain structural and functional changes remain, however, still unclear.

Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques, i.e., magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and

positron emission tomography (PET), offer new possibilities to understand how the human brain

works in health and disease. This includes methods to detect subtle regional changes in the

cerebrovascular system integrity. Here, we focus on the neurovascular imaging techniques to

evaluate regional BBB permeability (dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI), regional CBF changes

(arterial spin labeling- and functional-MRI), vascular pathology (structural MRI), and cerebral

metabolism (PET) in the living human brain, and examine how they can inform about

neurovascular dysfunction and vascular pathophysiology in dementia and AD. Altogether, these

neuroimaging approaches will continue to elucidate the spatio-temporal progression of vascular

and neurodegenerative processes in dementia and AD and how they relate to each other.

Keywords

Alzheimer’s disease; Neurovascular dysfunction; Blood–brain barrier; Cerebral blood flow; Magnetic resonance imaging

Introduction

Vascular contributions to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are increasingly

recognized [115, 198]. It is estimated that up to 45 % of all dementias worldwide is wholly

or partly due to age-related small vessel disease of the brain [188]. AD is characterized by

✉Berislav V. Zlokovic, [emailprotected].

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Published in final edited form as:Acta Neuropathol. 2016 May ; 131(5): 687–707. doi:10.1007/s00401-016-1570-0.

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the presence of neurovascular dysfunction, inflammation, tau neurofibrillary tangles,

amyloid-β (Aβ) plaques, neuronal loss and cognitive decline [198]. How these different

pathologies relate to each other and contribute to cognitive decline, particularly during early

stages of preclinical AD, and their exact role in the disease pathogenesis, remains, however,

still debatable. Neuroimaging methods are currently used to aid in AD diagnosis by

identifying structural and functional brain changes via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

or positron emission tomography (PET), which was virtually impossible to assess in the

living human brain until recently [115, 124]. Alongside to contributing to AD diagnostic

confirmation, imaging can also inform differential diagnosis by identifying alternative

and/or related pathologies, for instance cerebrovascular disorder and non-AD

neurodegenerative diseases contributing to a complex spectrum of dementias.

Determining early AD pathophysiological changes has immediate prognostic importance

during preclinical AD and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) stages. Only a fraction of MCI

patients progress to clinical AD over 5–10 years, and a recent meta-analysis concluded that

the majority of MCI patients will not progress to dementia even after 10 years follow-up

[114]. Interestingly, over one-third of patients diagnosed with MCI at baseline may

eventually return to normal cognition [66]. Therefore, during preclinical and MCI stages of

AD it would be enormously beneficial to predict when and who will progress to AD, and

have reliable and predictive neuroimaging biomarkers supporting conversion from

preclinical and MCI stages to AD, and/or back from the MCI stage to a normal cognitive

stage.

Recent technological advances in neuroimaging, including novel image acquisition

sequences and pre- and post-processing analyses, now enable sensitive regional and

quantitative measures of cerebrovascular functions and brain’s structural and functional

connectivity to be studied. For example, multiparametric neuroimaging approaches (i.e.,

dynamic-, functional-, and structural-MRI, and molecular PET imaging) are being used

recently to evaluate neurovascular dysfunction in early dementia and AD including MRI

methods to measure regional blood–brain barrier (BBB) permeability and cerebral blood

flow (CBF) dysregulation, cerebral blood volume (CBV), cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen

consumption (CMRO2), microbleeding events, white matter connectivity, white matter

lesions (WML), and regional brain atrophy, as well as PET imaging of BBB glucose

transport and amyloid cerebrovascular pathology. Neuroimaging can offer enormous benefit

to AD research and practice, particularly when applied longitudinally to elucidate regional

and temporal developments of different pathologies, enable early detection of pathological

and functional changes, inform novel treatment targets, and evaluate therapeutic efficacy.

Here, we review neurovascular imaging approaches and examine how they can inform us

about neurovascular dysfunction and vascular pathophysiology in AD and how they can

potentially contribute to identify individuals at risk for dementia and AD.

Neurovascular dysfunction in AD

The etiology of late-onset sporadic AD is currently unknown, but mounting evidence

suggests that cerebrovascular dysfunction contributes to AD etiology and progression [115,

198].

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The neurovascular unit

The neurovascular unit (NVU) is comprised of vascular cells (endothelial cells, pericytes,

vascular smooth muscle cells), glia (astrocytes, microglia, oligodendrocytes), and neurons

that collectively underlie all functional responses of the central nervous system (CNS) [198].

Brain microvessels form a physical BBB that normally prevents macromolecules such as

neuroactive peptides and proteins from entering the brain [199] unless they have specific

carriers and/or receptors in brain endothelium [109, 197], which contrasts with the highly

permeable vasculature in peripheral circulation [111]. Moreover, an intact BBB importantly

regulates Aβ clearance from brain via receptor-mediated transport mechanisms in

microvascular endothelium that control efflux of brain-derived Aβ from brain to circulation

and influx and/or re-entry of circulating Aβ into the brain [109]. Brain endothelial cells are

also able to regulate their own local coagulation environment within the brain

microcirculation that is critical for normal capillary blood flow [186]. In AD, however,

cerebrovascular dysfunction at the NVU including BBB breakdown, disrupted CBF,

hypoperfusion, oligemia, and impaired vascular brain-to-blood clearance and blood-to-brain

transport of Aβ contributes to disease pathophysiology [115, 198, 200].

Two-hit vascular hypothesis of AD

According to the two-hit vascular hypothesis, damage to brain microcirculation (hit one) in

the aging brain, which may result from the effects of genetic risk factors, environmental

factors, lifestyle or vascular risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes and/or

hyperlipidemia, initiates a cascade of pathogenic events. This includes changes in BBB

function such as BBB breakdown and increased permeability, and changes in brain perfusion

including CBF dysregulation and reduction. BBB breakdown allows entry into the brain of

blood-derived neurotoxic molecules (e.g., immunoglobulins, albumin, fibrinogen, and

thrombin) and cells (e.g., erythrocytes, leukocytes, among others) that cause vascular

pathology in brain parenchyma and can directly damage neurons [199]. Altogether, the

vascular disruption contributes to the second hit (hit two), where increased Aβ accumulation

in brain parenchyma and impaired clearance exerts neurotoxic effects on the brain leading to

neurodegeneration and dementia [46]. Increasing number of studies recognize a synergistic

relationship between BBB dysfunction and Aβ accumulation and neurofibrillary tangles,

which initially form in the medial temporal lobe and hippocampus during the early stages of

the disease before progressing to the neocortex [124]. Specifically, inadequate cerebral

perfusion can promote Aβ accumulation and neurofibrillary tangles, and the neurotoxic

effects of Aβ in turn impair vascular function, such as endothelial function and

neurovascular coupling, and induce reduced CBF, as recently reviewed [133]. A recent

review concluded that Aβ accumulation only partially explains BBB impairment in AD [56],

thus supporting the vascular-mediated neurodegeneration hypothesis.

Detecting neurovascular dysfunction in humans

To date, the majority of evidence of microvascular pathology in AD comes from histological

and biofluid analysis. For example, numerous post-mortem histological studies report

accumulation of blood-derived proteins (e.g., immunoglobulins, albumin, fibrinogen, and

thrombin) in the hippocampus and cortex and/or changes in tight junction endothelial

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protein expression at the BBB in human AD brains [76, 81]. Furthermore, a commonly used

in vivo measure of BBB breakdown is the albumin ratio (AR), namely the cerebrospinal

fluid (CSF) to serum ratio of albumin concentration [22, 75]. Albumin is a relatively large

molecule (molecular weight, 67 kDa) that is abundant in blood and cannot cross an intact

BBB, thus increased AR is interpreted as an indicator of BBB breakdown. AR is increased

in AD patients particularly in those with vascular risk factors [22], as well as in individuals

with MCI [115] and cognitively normal apolipoprotein E-ε4 (APOE4) carriers [75], which is

the major genetic risk factor for sporadic AD. Additional biofluid measures of

cerebrovascular dysfunction, including an early increase in CSF pericyte soluble platelet-

derived growth factor receptor-β (sPDGFRβ) marker and brain endothelial cells markers,

further support a role of vascular changes during early cognitive decline stages, as recently

reported in a comprehensive review of NVU cell-specific CSF biomarkers in MCI and AD

individuals [166].

Recent advances in neuroimaging approaches are now enabling quantitative, regional

detection of cerebrovascular dysfunction in the living human brain. For example, Montagne

et al. provide the first in vivo evidence of BBB disruption in the aging hippocampus which

worsens in MCI, using a high-resolution MRI method to simultaneously map the blood-to-

brain transfer constant of gadolinium (Ktrans) regionally and quantitatively with a resolution

sufficient to image discrete subregions of the hippocampus [115]. Interestingly, they also

found that BBB breakdown correlates with increases in CSF levels of the BBB-associated

pericyte injury marker sPDGFRβ [115]. Other neuroimaging studies demonstrated CBF

dysregulation in mild to moderate AD patients [1] and in older adults at risk for AD prior to

detectable Aβ accumulation or brain atrophy [142]. These recent findings support the

presence of early vascular changes such as BBB breakdown and abnormal CBF responses in

the aging brain that collectively may contribute to accelerated disease progression during

preclinical and early stages of AD.

Dynamic and functional neuroimaging of BBB integrity and blood flow

Imaging methodology of BBB permeability

The most widely used technique to investigate the BBB integrity in vivo is dynamic

contrast-enhanced (DCE)-MRI with paramagnetic gadolinium-based contrast agents

(GBCAs), small molecules (molecular weight, ~1 kDa) that cross disrupted BBB [121]. The

transfer rate of GBCAs from the intravascular into the extravascular space of the brain can

be measured to determine BBB permeability. Although GBCAs are considered relatively

safe compared to iodine-based agents, there are rare reports of nephrogenic systemic [171],

and more recently brain retention associated with the linear forms of GBCAs, compared to

macrocyclic GBCAs which are at low risk for brain deposition [117].

Several post-processing approaches of DCE dynamic images exist to visualize contrast agent

distribution over time. The most straightforward method is to determine the relative signal

enhancement in a region-of-interest (ROI), as was used in numerous MRI studies [77, 163,

184, 185]. A stronger signal enhancement of the ROI in the brain extravascular space

indicates a higher concentration of contrast agent, which is interpreted as a leakage across

the BBB. However, most applications of DCE in the brain have focused on imaging a

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relatively high degree of BBB breakdown (such as observed in malignant tumors, multiple

sclerosis or stroke), rather than subtle changes in BBB permeability, as found for example

during normal aging and MCI stages [115].

The BBB leakage can be determined quantitatively to compute the so-called blood-to-brain

transfer constant, Ktrans. There are several mathematical models available to compute Ktrans

that differ in complexity and assumptions under which they can be applied [158]. For

example, a two-compartment models such as the Tofts model [174] assumes that each ROI

contains a vascular compartment and an extravascular extracellular space compartment and

calculates both the influx and backflux of the tracer, whereas other models such as the Patlak

model determines only linear influx of tracer into the brain during the unidirectional entry

phase assuming its minimal backflux from brain back into the circulation [129]. Importantly,

the Ktrans values enable detection of a subtly damaged BBB as for example during normal

aging and preclinical AD stages and in MCI [115] that is at least one to two orders of

magnitude lower than the BBB breakdown found in brain tumors, during relapsing multiple

sclerosis attacks, or post-ischemic BBB changes after stroke [103, 156]. Interestingly,

Montagne and colleagues showed that the Patlak linear regression model can estimate low

vascular permeability (i.e., Ktrans = 0.1–0.6 × 10−3 min−1) as shown using an optimized

DCE-MRI protocol with improved pre- and post-processing analysis [14, 115].

Most pharmaco*kinetic models require the arterial input function (AIF) to be known. Hence,

determination of AIF represents a key issue in the reliable estimation of pharmaco*kinetic

parameters. There are several strategies for AIF selection and the optimal method varies

according to pathology, study aims and clinical requirements [28]. In most applications,

direct measurement of the AIF is generally considered preferable to population-based AIFs

averaged from superior sagittal sinus [104]. Limitations of a population approach are: not

always obtainable, susceptible to partial volume and in-flow artifacts, variability in which

vessel is sampled, and variability in vessel measurement with approaches ranging from

manual ROI selection to methods for automatic vessel detection [33]. Earlier this year,

Montagne et al. measured the AIF in each individual from the common carotid artery instead

of using an average value from the superior sagittal venous sinus to determine tracer

concentration in blood [115]. They have highlighted the fact that individual AIF

measurements are important particularly if the studied population diverges by age as

changes in blood volume and flow may affect AIF and the final Ktrans measurements.

The calculation of contrast agent concentration from signal enhancement requires reliable

estimation of intrinsic tissue parameters such as the pre-contrast longitudinal relaxation time

T1. There are several methods of estimating baseline T1, with variable flip-angle and

multiple time repetition being the most common. The effect of uncertainty in T1 estimation

on the calculation of contrast agent concentrations has been investigated by Schabel and

Parker [144]. They demonstrate that T1 produces a significant concentration bias, which

shows the importance of accounting for T1 when assessing BBB disruption in different

tissue types [9].

There is also disagreement on whether to describe the capillary bed in terms of blood

concentration or plasma concentration by correcting for the hematocrit (Hct). In the latter

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case, Hct should ideally be determined for every subject, but a standard value such as Hct =

0.45 is often assumed [158]. In theory, all model equations and resulting parameter values

can easily be converted between conventions. Other sources of uncertainty rarely considered

in DCE-MRI studies may arise due to a lack of available data. For example, relativity values

specific to a contrast agent, field strength and tissue pathology are rarely known, with the

consequence that uniform relativity across tissues and compartments is generally assumed.

Barnes and coworkers have developed a software (Rocketship) suite for dynamic MRI

datasets (in particular DCE-MRI) analysis [15]. This software allows for DCE-MRI data

analysis using several pharmaco*kinetic models used currently in the literature as well as

data-driven analysis methods. There is a possibility to correct for hematocrit and relativity

values specific to the contrast agent used, among many other parameters, which is important

for high accuracy of BBB Ktrans measurements.

Finally, DCE-MRI methodology can still be improved to increase the sensitivity to subtle

BBB permeability. Progress can be made by increasing signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) or by

increasing spatial resolution. A higher SNR would help to improve the sensitivity to low

concentrations of gadolinium due to limited BBB leakage, and a better spatial resolution

would help to detect small “hot spots” of leakage. Moving to higher field strengths such as 7

T may help in this regard [178]. Also, a multi-compartment model [129, 174], combined

with proper contrast agent concentration calculations [14, 115, 144] and whole-brain voxel-

wise analysis methods, should increase sensitivity for low and localized leakage.

Use of BBB imaging in AD

Vascular dysfunction, including BBB breakdown, is increasingly recognized as contributory

to AD pathophysiology. In vivo BBB imaging in humans can inform regional brain changes

in BBB integrity in the context of physiological circulation and homeostasis, which is

advantageous to other common methods to evaluate BBB integrity including analysis of

tight junctions and plasma-derived proteins in biofluids or histological markers in post-

mortem tissue.

Several early studies using DCE-MRI in the context of AD yielded semi-quantitative BBB

analysis interpretations that differ from the current understanding of DCE-MRI. For

instance, Wang et al. in 2006 used a DCE-MRI sequence and observed that the signal

enhancement curve was higher after contrast agent administration in the hippocampus of

MCI compared to control subjects [185]. This was interpreted as lower local blood volume

and longer signal retention, indicative of vascular changes in the hippocampus rather than an

indication of BBB permeability [185]. Additionally, DCE-MRI analysis in 15 subjects with

probable AD and their healthy spouses revealed aberrant temporal patterns of gadolinium-

based signal enhancement, interpreted as altered blood–brain–CSF compartment kinetics

[163]. Considering the results and timeframe of the study (30 min), the authors concluded

that contrast agent accumulation in brain was more conceivable to occur via blood–brain-

CSF pathway, rather than blood–CSF–brain pathway [163]. Several groups used DCE-MRI

protocols to study BBB integrity in the areas of white matter hyperintensities (WMH) and

reported different findings. For instance, BBB permeability in WMH areas was not changed

in subjects with dementia [184], but was found to be altered in Binswanger’s disease, a rare,

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more diffuse and subcortical form of vascular dementia [77]. These contradictory results

may have arisen from methodological differences.

In a more quantitative manner, two recent studies investigated BBB dysfunction in subjects

with vascular cognitive impairment [167, 168]. Both studies used a post-contrast scanning

time of 24.5 min and the Patlak model to calculate BBB permeability (Ki) maps. The

resulting Ki maps were investigated by means of distribution histograms. They demonstrated

an increased contrast agent leakage localized in the center of some WMH lesions, though

not in every WMH, nor in its periphery, and were inconclusive whether BBB breakdown

contributes to WMH lesions or not, suggesting more work needs to be done in this area.

Recent study using a novel high-resolution DCE-MRI technique to simultaneously map the

Ktrans constant regionally and quantitatively, and with a resolution sufficient to image

discrete regions of the hippocampus [115], suggested that Ktrans increases linearly with age

only in the hippocampus and its CA1 and dentate gyrus regions, which worsens in

individuals with MCI as indicated by ~60 % increase in Ktrans values compared to

cognitively intact age-matched controls (Fig. 1). These increases in BBB permeability were

not associated with reduced hippocampal volume, suggesting that they may precede the

development of tissue damage and hippocampal atrophy [115]. These observations provide

the first direct evidence for an age-dependent and regionally selective disruption of the BBB

in the hippocampus of cognitively normal individuals, which is exacerbated in MCI.

The above-described studies are heterogeneous in regard to image acquisition and analysis

methods, thus care must be taken when comparing results from different studies. For

example, tumor studies use higher temporal resolution and shorter imaging duration on

average compared with studies of less permeable tissue such as normal appearing brain and

dementia [14]. Additionally, motion artifacts can interfere with post-processing DCE

datasets even though new motion correction tools have emerged. Due to the wide range of

analysis techniques used and their strong dependence on underlying assumptions and

acquisition parameters, a lack of inter-study comparability represents a major problem. The

importance of appropriate model selection has been demonstrated both theoretically [14,

157] and experimentally in low-permeability brain tissues [42, 103, 115].

Imaging of CBF dysregulation

A full discussion of arterial spin labeling (ASL)-MRI methodology is beyond the scope of

this review and has been summarized elsewhere [48]. Briefly, in vivo assessment of CBF via

ASL-MRI may be promising as a potential tool for early detection and characterization of

AD progression. CBF refers to the rate of delivery of arterial blood to the capillary bed in

brain tissue and is typically quantified in milliliters of blood per 100 g of tissue per minute

[106]. ASL is a non-invasive and reliable MRI technique [128] that magnetically labels

arterial water in the brain and uses it as an endogenous tracer to measure CBF. Because

ASL-MRI provides a quantitative measure of CBF in the capillary bed, rather than a relative

measure such as the venous blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD)-functional MRI (fMRI)

signal (see later subsection “Blood oxygen level-dependent contribution in functional

imaging”), it has the potential to more accurately estimate the magnitude and location of

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neuronal function [106], which is an advantage over peripheral measures of vascular

pathology.

Use of CBF imaging in AD

Several groups have now reported findings using ASL-MRI in different regions of AD

brains. For instance, studies frequently report hypoperfusion to precuneus, posterior

cingulate, inferior/superior parietal, and lateral prefrontal cortices [5, 6, 43, 82, 94, 195],

though additional areas of reduced perfusion have been described in the temporal lobe

including the parahippocampal gyrus and hippocampus [101, 191]. Importantly, as grey

matter loss could account for the reduced perfusion signal, several of these studies applied

an atrophy correction [4, 43, 94], which did not appear to significantly alter the findings of

regional hypoperfusion. In general, these regions displayed greater group level CBF

reductions than loss of grey matter tissue, consistent with the notion that the functional

change reflected by this measure exceeds volume loss. Interestingly, the above findings

correlate with regional reduction of glucose uptake by the brain, as reported in several

studies of AD using fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG)-PET imaging [90, 102] (see later subsection

“Molecular imaging of AD pathology”). Chen and colleagues directly compared ASL-MRI

with FDG-PET acquisition in the same subjects at the same time and found a high

correlation between hypoperfusion and impaired glucose uptake by the brain, which is not

surprising as glucose uptake is flow dependent [34].

Subjects with MCI are often conceptualized as representing individuals who are

transitioning from being cognitively normal to developing symptoms of early AD [131], and

some subjects remain in this prodromal stage for several years—up to 7.5 years according to

Roe and colleagues [140]—and some revert back to cognitively normal. A limited, but

growing, number of studies have applied ASL-MRI to this population [3, 32, 43, 94, 192].

Studies in MCI subjects generally report decreased CBF to precuneus, posterior cingulate,

and parietal regions [39, 120], and a further decrease in CBF to hippocampus, caudate, and

thalamus in AD compared to no cognitive impairment (NCI) or MCI (Fig. 2a). For example,

thalamic CBF decreased 20 % from MCI to AD stages and correlated with subjects’

Dementia Rating Scale (Fig. 2b, c). Interestingly, caudate CBF values also correlated

negatively with WML volume, more so in MCI and AD compared to NCI stages (Fig. 2d).

Despite an approximately 40 % global decrease in CBF in AD subjects compared to age-

matched cognitively normal adults [10], the medial temporal lobe has been reported to be

relatively hyperperfused in at-risk controls (i.e., APOE4 carriers) and subjects at early stages

of AD [4, 43, 61]. For example, in the study by Alsop and colleagues, despite the presence

of hypoperfused brain regions, hippocampal and parahippocampal regions were associated

with increased CBF in AD subjects relative to age-matched controls [4]. These inconsistent

findings remain across studies and are difficult to resolve to date. An appealing reason for

this discrepancy has been proposed by Østergaard et al., who suggested that brain capillary

dysfunction underlies the development of a neuronal energy crisis which triggers AD [125,

126]. They propose that increased capillary transit time heterogeneity for erythrocytes

passing through capillaries decreases the oxygen that can be extracted by the tissue so that,

as capillary transit times become more heterogeneous, a higher blood flow is required to

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maintain tissue oxygen supply. Obstruction of flow in some capillary branches may

therefore trigger an initial compensatory increase in blood flow in order to preserve tissue

oxygen extraction and neuronal function. Later on, hypoperfusion (which reflects

neurovascular adjustments in an attempt to maintain oxygen availability in the tissue), seen

in the progression from normal cognitive aging to mild dementia and AD, is therefore

consistent with early disturbances in capillary flow patterns and fits well into established

models of AD neuropathology [18]. However, this model needs further testing and validation

in human studies.

Despite the clear advantage of ASL-MRI to provide quantitative CBF measurement, several

methodological issues currently limit its widespread use. For example, multi-center studies

lack ASL-MRI standardization and many of the existing pulse sequences have limitations

(e.g., sensitivity to transit time effects, limited brain coverage, low spatial resolution, less

sensitivity to white matter CBF) which may account for some of the apparent conflicting

data reported in AD, at-risk AD, and MCI stages. The variability in methodology and

processing applied across studies has hindered the ability to define standard CBF reference

values. Altogether, while ASL-MRI holds promise, it has not been clearly demonstrated to

be ready for routine use in clinical trials and clinical practice, remaining a research tool

overall. Larger studies in MCI and AD with more direct comparison to existing molecular

and neurodegenerative biomarkers will be necessary to determine the clinical value of this

approach.

Blood oxygen level-dependent contribution in functional imaging

The BOLD contrast in fMRI has rapidly emerged as a powerful non-invasive technique for

studying brain function in humans. The BOLD-fMRI signal is produced by field

inhom*ogeneities induced by deoxyhemoglobin (dHb), an endogenous and natural contrast

agent. Specifically, the BOLD-fMRI signal reflects the loss of oxygen from hemoglobin,

causing its iron to become paramagnetic, which influences the magnetic field experienced

by proton spins within surrounding water molecules [123, 130]. Therefore, changes in the

local dHb concentration in the brain lead to modifications in MRI signal intensity [123,

172]. During neuronal activity, an increase of oxygen consumption is instantly followed by a

local increase in CBF and CBV, resulting in a net decrease of the amount of dHb, which

ultimately alters the MRI signal level [64, 107, 110, 135]. Additionally, it is important to

consider the dynamic pattern of the local dHb concentration. Although the dilation of

arteries and arterioles can be significant (up to 25 % of baseline) [173], their small volume

and high oxygenation means that arteries themselves contribute relatively little to the

BOLD-fMRI signal [80]. Veins, however, display large increases in dHb concentration that

contribute significantly to the BOLD-fMRI signal. Nevertheless, these increases can be

expected to be delayed with respect to the active capillary bed and may even be shifted as a

result of the venous drainage system [177]. Despite widespread use for over 20 years, the

nature of the BOLD-fMRI signal is a matter of debate [12, 67, 79, 107, 152].

Most fMRI studies treat the BOLD response as an indirect qualitative measure of neuronal

activity and interpret BOLD signal differences as changes in neuronal activity. However, the

BOLD signal reflects local changes in dHb content, which in turns exhibits an intricate

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dependence on changes in CBF, CBV, and the cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen

consumption (CMRO2) [27]. CMRO2 is assumed to be most tightly associated with neuronal

activity, echoing the notion that neurons necessarily expend energy to accomplish their work

[83]. The positive BOLD response observed in most fMRI experiments reflects the fact that

CBF increases relatively more than CMRO2, so that local capillary and venous blood are

more oxygenated during increased brain activity. Overall, the actual amplitude of the BOLD

response is a subtle balance between the relative increases in CBF and CMRO2 [24].

Elements that disturb the connection between CBF and CMRO2, such as aging and

degeneration in AD, may therefore alter the BOLD response even when neuronal activity is

unchanged. For example, there is growing evidence that variations in the cerebrovascular

system due to age and disease can significantly change the BOLD signal and complicate its

interpretation. Age-related factors include altered cerebrovascular ultrastructure, reduced

blood vessel elasticity, increased atherosclerosis, reduced resting state CBF, decreased

resting CMRO2, and reduced vascular reactivity to chemical modulators [47]. In fMRI

studies examining the effects of aging, researchers have found a significant age-dependent

decrease in the BOLD signal amplitude [26, 170], possibly correlating with age-related

decrease in the resistance of the cerebrovascular system [47, 179].

Use of functional MRI in AD

During the past decade, both task-based and resting state BOLD-fMRI studies have proved

to be a very useful tool in investigating brain functions and hemodynamic responses in

neurodegenerative disorders, especially AD.

In the mid-1990s, activation of the hippocampus and parahippocampal regions during

successful memory encoding has been shown in healthy young subjects during various

episodic memory tasks using a task-based fMRI paradigm [23, 164, 183]. A few years later,

the pioneering task-based fMRI studies on AD also focused on exploring alterations in

hippocampal activation [97, 108, 141, 153, 159]. To date, there are several task-dependent

fMRI studies which have consistently reported changes in hippocampal activation in AD

compared to healthy elderly controls, consistent with impaired memory function [52, 68,

108, 127, 138, 141, 153, 159]. Interestingly, several studies have reported increased

prefrontal cortical activity in AD subjects [69, 155, 159], suggesting that other networks

may increase activity as an attempted compensatory mechanism during hippocampal failure.

Although many of these studies found a decreased hippocampal activity in both MCI and

AD subjects, some studies revealed hyperactivity in the hippocampus in MCI individuals [4,

20, 52], which has been interpreted as a compensatory phenomenon, or a harbinger of

upcoming hippocampal failure. Cross-sectional studies suggest that this hyperactivity may

be present only at early stages of MCI, followed by a loss of activation in late stages of MCI,

similar to the pattern seen in individuals with AD [31]. Longitudinal studies furthermore

suggest that the presence of hyperactivity at baseline is a predictor of rapid cognitive decline

[21, 51, 113], and loss of hippocampal function on serial fMRI [122].

Interestingly, studies of older cognitively normal individuals or middle-aged adults have

demonstrated BOLD responses differ by APOE genotype [20, 60], including APOE4 carriers, as well as positive family history of AD [95]. Once more, many task-based fMRI

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studies reported a unique impaired functional connectivity/neuronal activity within the

hippocampus and to neighboring temporal regions in AD cases. However, modifications in

CBF and CBV, as well as changes in CMRO2 level should be accounted for and further

discussed since they are known to directly affect the BOLD-fMRI signal and thus may

contribute to the observed results. Consistent with this idea, some groups investigated task-

dependent BOLD signal changes in preclinical AD and reported that it might reflect altered

sensitivity to activation due to changes in baseline blood flow [7, 41].

In addition to task-based fMRI studies, recent functional imaging studies have demonstrated

AD-related alterations in the “default mode” network (DMN), during a resting state. The

resting state of the human brain was originally identified by its increased activity at wakeful

rest, including high resting glucose metabolism and blood flow [74, 136, 151]. An important

advantage of resting state fMRI imaging in AD is the ability to scan subjects who are too

impaired to actively participate in a task-based scanning paradigm or in whom the

interpretation of task-based fMRI responses would be confounded by differences in task

performance. The resting state fMRI findings in MCI and AD have been fairly consistent

across studies showing abnormalities in the DMN, including the hippocampus, precuneus,

medial prefrontal cortex, and lateral parietal cortices. These regions have been reported to be

active at rest [71, 136, 169], but during the performance of demanding cognitive tasks, DMN

activity decreased dramatically in AD individuals [44, 72, 150, 187].

Overall, a variety of recent reports have explored conditions under which the BOLD-fMRI

response is altered or abnormal in AD. While most of these studies interpreted that changed

BOLD responses were a reflection of altered underlying neuronal activity, it is becoming

increasingly recognized that in some situations, neurovascular coupling itself—including

hemodynamic changes of altered blood flow—could be affected. Neurovascular coupling

refers to the association of cellular activity and CBF, and alongside the BOLD-fMRI signal,

neurovascular coupling is also likely to undergo changes during healthy aging and during

AD-related pathological processes. Some of the changes that may occur even in healthy

elderly subjects include, for example, increased atherosclerosis [47]. In AD, the presence of

Aβ in the cerebral vasculature, together with altered neurotransmitter activity, impairs

synaptic, neuronal and glial function [85], may thus lead to an attenuated BOLD response.

Furthermore, Dumas and colleagues found changes in the hemodynamic response curve in

individuals with cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA) which supports that BOLD signal

changes are affected by vascular dysregulations present in AD [54]. Additionally, the

alterations in BOLD activity reported in AD also appear to be quite regionally specific and

dependent on the nature of the cognitive task, thus making it likely that the changes

observed in fMRI studies may represent local pathophysiological alterations in

neurovascular coupling.

BOLD-fMRI response is variable across subjects. The reproducibility of BOLD signal

changes within young healthy individuals during memory encoding tasks across separate

days is reported to be reasonable [78, 162]. Some studies have shown moderate-to-excellent

test–retest reproducibility of fMRI activation in older and cognitively impaired participants

[11, 40, 73, 134, 196]. Longitudinal functional imaging studies are needed to track the

evolution of alterations in the fMRI activation pattern over the course of normal aging and

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cognitive decline in clinical AD. In addition, fMRI studies should importantly take into

account the contribution of structural atrophy observed in dementias. A combination of

structural MRI, functional MRI and other imaging techniques such as PET amyloid-imaging

may serve as a valuable in vivo method to elucidate AD pathophysiological progression.

One promising area to palliate discrepancies regarding the meaning of the BOLD-fMRI

signal is the use of the ASL-MRI technique in combination with BOLD imaging (ASL/

BOLD). With the increasing application of fMRI techniques to study AD, there is a growing

need for quantitative measures that can more accurately reflect neuronal activity, as well as

local hemodynamic changes separately. Therefore, ASL/BOLD imaging would have the

potential to distinguish between the BOLD signal and the relative CBF response, and

thereby provide a more complete accounting of the functional changes occurring in specified

brain regions during the performance of cognitive or other tasks. These combined measures

appear promising to characterize the impact of aging, preclinical/clinical AD, genetic risk

factors, vascular risk factors, among others, on the CBF response to cognitive functions such

as episodic memory. In short, quantitative fMRI with combined ASL/BOLD may address

questions that cannot be fully answered with BOLD measures alone [24, 49, 146, 190].

Neuroimaging of vascular pathology and cerebral metabolism

Microbleeding events

Cerebral microbleeds (CMBs) are lesion-based MRI markers visualized as small

hypointense regions on T2*- and susceptibility-weighted imaging (SWI-MRI) scans [70].

These punctate lesions are thought to represent hemosiderin-laden macrophages

accumulated in perivascular spaces as a result of microhemorrhage [182]. Studies have

revealed two patterns of CMB distribution, including subcortical and posterior lobar.

Subcortical lesions are thought to be secondary to hypertensive injury, whereas posterior

lobar CMBs may be due to CAA [70]. CAA is present in 80–100 % of AD brains, but may

also occur in the absence of AD [182]. The posterior lobar involvement of CMBs in CAA is

consistent with the general pattern of posterior versus anterior findings from atrophy and

WML studies in AD. This evidence supports that evaluating CMBs, in combination with

other types of cerebrovascular dysfunction, has the potential to inform the

pathophysiological course of AD progression. A full discussion of CMBs in CAA and AD is

beyond the scope of this review and is summarized indepth elsewhere [182].

Connectivity and white matter lesions

Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a promising structural MRI modality that has been useful

in the study of white matter pathology in AD [2, 29, 139]. This method indexes water

diffusion as an indirect measure of microstructural integrity, as discussed in a comprehensive

technical review [16]. Specifically, the restriction of water diffusion is anisotropic in brain

areas containing large white matter tracts since water is much more likely to diffuse along

these tracts than across them. Thus, by tracking the diffusion of water molecules, DTI

methods can provide “maps” of white matter tracts in the brain. To the extent that white

matter tracts exhibit degenerative changes, the surrounding water molecules can diffuse

more freely, making water diffusion considered isotropic. These changes can be quantified

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using DTI measures, also called DTI metrics, such as fractional anisotropy (FA) (as depicted

in Fig. 3) which indexes the ratio of axial versus radial diffusivity along white matter tracts.

Another measure is mean diffusivity (MD), which indexes the overall average of axial and

radial diffusivity.

These diffusion maps are statistically analyzed using robust methods, such as tract-based

spatial statistics, to evaluate white matter integrity associated with AD. For example, white

matter disruptions are observed in MCI compared to control subjects including regions such

as the inferior frontal and parahippocampal white matter (Fig. 3). Additionally, DTI studies

in AD report widespread and confluent abnormalities in the parietal, temporal, and

prefrontal white matter, but posterior white matter changes are most prominent, which are

best captured by examining absolute diffusivities [2]. Specifically, the long association fibers

and interhemispheric fibers are primarily implicated, including the posterior corpus

callosum, cingulum bundle at the level of the posterior cingulate, superior longitudinal

fasciculus, fronto-occipital fasciculus, the posterior thalamic radiation, and the superior

temporo-parietal white matter [2]. These data are consistent with the posterior to anterior

progression model also observed in volumetric grey and white matter studies in AD (see

later subsection “Regional brain atrophy”), as are results from a recent study reporting

predominantly posterior white matter changes in mild stages and more advanced stages

exhibiting both posterior and anterior changes [29].

Less research has been conducted on DTI metrics from grey matter, but the few studies that

have been conducted suggest that grey matter microstructural changes may be among the

earliest detectible brain changes in AD. In a recent study of individuals with autosomal

dominant AD, asymptomatic mutation carriers exhibited increased grey matter MD within

the hippocampus, caudate and thalamus before any other structural brain changes were

observable [143]. Similarly, other studies of late onset or sporadic AD have also found

increased MD within the hippocampus of mildly demented subjects [35, 193]. Although the

reason for increased MD within grey matter regions is currently unclear, further study of

regional DTI metrics within grey matter may yield new insights into microstructural changes

during the earliest stages of AD.

In addition to DTI-metrics and associated white matter tracts, studies utilizing T2/fluid-

attenuated inversion recovery (FLAIR)-weighted scans have identified circ*mscribed areas

of hyperintense signal that increase with normal aging [145], but are also associated with

AD-related cognitive decline [176]. These WMLs are thought to represent changes in tissue

water content secondary to multiple pathological processes, including ischemia, gliosis, and

demyelination [145]. These underlying pathological changes may be secondary to cerebral

small vessel disease and/or AD-related neurodegeneration. Recent research has focused on

differentiating qualitative aspects of WML pathology. These include attempts to parcellate

lesions based on the involvement of various neuroanatomical regions or even specific white

matter tracts [145]. As with cortical atrophy studies reviewed below (see later subsection

“Regional brain atrophy”), more posterior WMLs involving the parietal lobe may be of

particular importance in AD, as they correlate more strongly with cognitive impairment and

may interact with tau pathology to accelerate clinical progression [176].

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Regional brain atrophy

Gross cerebral atrophy is one of the cardinal features of AD neuropathology originally

described by Alois Alzheimer in 1906, and structural MRI methodologies therefore became

a major focus in studying differences between AD and normal brain aging. Early cerebral

atrophy in AD is thought to be due primarily to synaptic loss and subsequently to neuronal

loss [148]. The vast majority of early structural neuroimaging studies utilized manual tracing

methodologies to quantify the extent of atrophy, but these time-intensive methods limited the

study sample size and the number of brain areas that could be assessed. Voxel-based

morphometry is an alternative method that does not require manual tracing of a priori ROIs,

but may be relatively insensitive to more subtle changes in cortical thickness [50]. The

advent of freely available software systems providing semi-automated segmentation and

parcellation to assess regional volume and thickness (e.g., FreeSurfer software) has

improved reproducibility, allowed for larger studies, and provided for a broader survey of

brain-wide patterns of cerebral atrophy [58]. Studies comparing older adults with AD to

those without dementia report a partly overlapping yet distinct pattern of cerebral cortical

atrophy. Specifically, findings indicate the most salient regional atrophy in AD occurs within

more posterior regions, including parietal regions such as the precuneus, temporo-parietal

cortex and medial-temporal lobes [50, 148] as well as their underlying white matter

structures [37].

It is widely recognized that various white matter abnormalities are associated with AD,

including Wallerian degeneration, oligodendrocyte loss, and demyelination. Structural

neuroimaging studies in MCI and AD reveal that white matter abnormalities are particularly

found in the corpus callosum and paraventicular regions. For instance, although prefrontal

white matter volume loss occurs as part of normal aging [137], quantification of cerebral

white matter atrophy in T1-weighted anatomical images indicate that AD is associated with

prominent atrophy of temporal white matter and posterior corpus callosum [105]. In addition

to evaluating white matter abnormalities, the majority of volumetric MRI studies in AD have

focused on grey matter pathology.

As with normal aging, AD is largely known to be associated with substantial hippocampal

atrophy [62, 86]. A recent more sophisticated approach delves beyond overall hippocampal

volume to quantify atrophy within specific hippocampal subfields in AD versus normal

aging, as reviewed in [62]. Cumulative evidence from structural MRI studies focusing on

hippocampal subfields have confirmed that CA1 atrophy is associated with cognitive decline

[8], MCI [63], the presence of the APOE4 allele [98], and progression to AD [8]. However,

some studies also indicate additional involvement of other hippocampal subregions [119,

194]. The inconsistent findings of hippocampal subfield morphology in structural MRI

analyses are likely due to the great variety of manual tracing methods and/or magnetic field

strength-dependent SNR and spatial/temporal resolutions. T1/2-weighted images acquired at

3 and 7 T field strength have different spatial resolution (Fig. 4a) which directly impacts the

regional specificity that can be detected, for instance hippocampal analysis in images

acquired at 3 Tesla (T) and 7 T can differentially quantify 4 and 7–8 subregions, respectively

(Fig. 4b).

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Early cognitive decline and AD genetic risk factors are associated with atrophy of

hippocampal subfields [8, 62, 63, 98, 119, 119, 194], which is consistent with our recent

study in MCI reporting increased BBB Ktrans permeability predominantly in CA1 and

dentate gyrus hippocampal subfields [115]. These data highlight the benefit in adopting a

multiparametric approach, for instance combining structural and dynamic MRI sequences, to

detect different cerebrovascular measures in parallel. Structural and dynamic modalities

could also be used in conjunction with molecular neuroimaging that, through recent

advances, now enable in vivo visualization of the magnitude and regional brain distribution

of AD-related pathology. Such multiparametric approaches would shed additional light on

currently unclear spatial and temporal events in AD pathophysiology, such as the extended

prodromal period of AD.

Molecular imaging of AD pathology

Molecular imaging is used to visualize and quantify chemical processes at the cellular and

molecular level. The most common form of molecular imaging used to study AD is PET

imaging. PET detects pairs of gamma rays emitted from radioactive tracers and is used to

produce brain images of tracer binding. PET imaging biomarkers of metabolism and AD

neuropathology have substantially enhanced our understanding of AD-specific neural

changes in vivo [38, 99]. With the discovery of Aβ-sensitive radioligands over a decade ago,

the field experienced a dramatic increase in understanding the neurobiological cascade of

events in AD involving pathological burden, neurovascular dysfunction, neurodegeneration,

and cognitive decline [86, 99, 116].

The 18F-FDG-PET tracer is a glucose analog that measures glucose transport across the

BBB and entry into the brain. Reductions in cerebral metabolic rate of glucose (CMRglc)

have been reported in the AD literature for over three decades, consistently demonstrating

that individuals with AD have decreased transport of glucose across the BBB and therefore

decreased metabolism in AD-affected regions, such as posterior parietal and temporal

cortices [13, 55]. Metabolic patterns of FDG-PET uptake have also been shown to

discriminate between individuals with normal cognition, MCI, and clinical AD [100, 102].

Measurements derived from FDG-PET do not simply reflect neuronal activity but are

impacted by principles of neurovascular coupling involving vascular, astroglial, and

neuronal cells, and dynamic CBF [96, 149]. For instance, vasodilation is believed to be a

response to neural activity but is impacted by the control of astrocytes on cerebral

microcirculation [84, 132]. In vivo and post-mortem studies find that AD and vascular

pathology are often comorbid in individuals diagnosed with clinical AD, yet the interactions

between amyloid, tau, and vascular pathology in vivo are only beginning to be examined.

Amyloid PET tracers like 18F-AV45 and 11C-PiB (Pittsburgh compound B) have gained

traction in multi-site efforts [189] and across large cohorts at single sites [118], and

contribute to a growing body of literature of cross-sectional and longitudinal effects of Aβ on the brain [89]. However, the role of Aβ in the pathogenesis of AD is still under debate,

and ongoing questions about how Aβ affects brain function and whether amyloid PET is a

clinically useful biomarker remain. Many studies have reported associations of Aβ and brain

function, brain structure, and cognition. Individuals with significant Aβ have functional

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alterations in cortical hubs [25] and connectivity within networks measured with fMRI

[161]. Moreover, individuals who are considered amyloid-positive have lower brain volumes

and lower cortical thickness in AD-specific regions than amyloid-negative individuals [17].

However, the rate of Aβ accumulation over time may be independent of hippocampal

neurodegeneration [87]. There is a debate in the literature whether Aβ accumulation

correlates with impaired cognitive function [36], but emerging longitudinal studies suggest

that individuals with significant amyloid accumulation are at greater risk for future cognitive

decline [180, 181] and have poorer outcomes over time [160, 161]. The relationship between

amyloid PET binding and neurovascular integrity in AD are still under investigation, but it is

widely viewed that amyloid PET binding occurs not only in neuronal plaques, but vascular

plaques as in the case of CAA [30, 92].

Over the last few years, landmark developments of sensitive radioligands that bind to tau,

the other hallmark feature of AD, have been reported [88, 124]. These tracers bind to

hyperphosphorylated neurofibrillary tangles, the insoluble form of tau, and are not sensitive

to tau oligomers. Hyperphosphorylated tau impairs binding to microtubules, thereby

reducing neuronal stability, leading to synaptic dysfunction and ultimately cell death [45].

Evidence from animal models suggests a provocative relationship between the accumulation

of amyloid and tau for disrupting brain function and cognition in AD. That is, amyloid may

accumulate and disrupt neural activity in critical hub regions in the brain [53] while tau may

propagate through functional networks in a prion-like manner [65]. The spatial distribution

of the pathologies seem distinct, with amyloid depositing first in inferior frontal cortex and

spreading to association regions while tau deposition may follow Braak and Braak staging

with first sites in limbic regions and then to lateral cortical regions [93]. Data are emerging

to show a tight coupling between regional tau PET binding and Braak and Braak staging

(reviewed in [45]) and has been validated by post-mortem autoradiography studies [112].

Tau PET is an evolving science that over time will provide answers about the longitudinal

sensitivity of diagnostic and prognostic outcomes for AD and other tauopathies. Large-scale

efforts that collect multiple markers for metabolism, amyloid, tau, and neurovascular

integrity are needed to enhance our understanding of the interaction between events in AD

pathophysiology.

Clinical utility

The search for therapies that can modify the course of AD—e.g., to slow, delay, or prevent it

—is undoubtedly the most important challenge. That pursuit has led to an exploration for

neuroimaging markers to serve as diagnostic tools and/or outcome measures for drug

discovery and clinical trials; the clinical utility of each imaging modality will be judged on

these fronts. For instance, neuroimaging modalities are already being incorporated into

clinical trial design to improve diagnosis (with newly developed dynamic MRI modalities

such as DCE- and ASL-MRI) and/or to evaluate the therapeutic efficacy in reducing AD

pathophysiology such as vascular (with DCE-MRI) and CBF (with ASL-MRI) dysfunction,

atrophy (with structural MRI), disrupted metabolism (with FDG-PET and fMRI), and

fibrillary amyloid (with PiB-PET). There is a pronounced clinical need to define dynamic,

functional, structural, and molecular phenotypes of AD progression to support AD-specific

diagnostic criteria as well as treatment efforts.

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Recently improved DCE methodologies yield sensitive regional measures of BBB integrity.

DCE images are acquired via a 15-min sequence following GBCA intravenous injection, and

are currently used to clinically assess stroke and multiple sclerosis. Thus far, the diagnostic

use of DCE has not been applied to AD or other types of dementia; however, recently

improved DCE sensitivity has now shown increased hippocampal BBB permeability in CA1

and dentate gyrus subfields of MCI subjects [115]. DCE should therefore be incorporated

into clinical practice to evaluate subtle BBB damage that can potentially identify subjects

with early AD and related types of dementia. Additionally, recent comparison studies

indicate equivalent diagnostic performance between ASL-MRI and PET-MRI methods, but

ASL-MRI is advantageous due to its non-invasive, cost-effective, and easily repeatable

nature [34]. Hence, ASL-MRI offers promise to clinically detect CBF changes; however, the

specificity of ASL-measured CBF to distinguish between AD and other vascular pathologies

has not been firmly established, as reduced CBF is also reported in vascular dementia [147]

and a post-stroke non-demented group [57], it may mimic changes found in AD. This

suggests that regional cerebrovascular measures (i.e., BBB permeability and CBF) should be

clinically evaluated in combination with other imaging modalities, biofluid analysis, and

clinical information (e.g., neuropsychological performance; vascular/genetic risk factors).

Both task-related and resting state fMRI techniques have the potential to detect early brain

dysfunction related to AD; however, thus far the use of fMRI in aging, mild dementia and

AD populations has been largely restricted to research studies and clinical trials. Despite the

wide use of BOLD-fMRI in research, the BOLD signal remains a matter of debate since it is

a direct measure of hemodynamic changes and indirectly reflects neuronal activity. Two

current limitations hinder clinical use of fMRI in AD: (1) difficulties related to image

acquisition itself, mainly head motion and poor performance due to neurologic deficits; and

(2) difficulties related to interpretation in different aging and dementia populations. Resting

state fMRI may therefore be more feasible in severely impaired patients.

The clinical application of structural imaging techniques has remained elusive since brain

atrophy has a large degree of overlap in both normal and AD-related brain aging [59]. These

overlapping distributions become more prominent with advancing age, which thereby

attenuates the diagnostic value of brain atrophy scales as patients enter the ninth decade of

life [165]. Also, CMBs and WMLs (hyper/hypo-intense signals) and volumetric techniques

provide the least information regarding underlying mechanisms or pathology (e.g., gliosis,

demyelination, axonal loss). Although it may be possible to detect subtle hippocampal

volume changes during early MCI and preclinical phases of AD [19, 154, 175], gross

cortical and hippocampal atrophy may not emerge until relatively late in the AD process

after observable cognitive decline has occurred [91]. Although DTI metrics offer quantitative

indexes of microstructural change, as with other structural imaging modalities, a given

change in DTI metrics may reflect a number of different microstructural changes, thus

limiting the clinical utility of these scales.

Clinically, many types of AD-related dementias (i.e., fronto-temporal, vascular, mixed, and

Lewy-body dementias) in addition to normal aging exhibit both vascular dysfunction and

amyloid accumulation. Though amyloid changes occur during preclinical stages of AD,

measures of amyloid (PET tracer PiB) and tau (PET tracers targeting tau) do not appear to

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be sensitive enough to predict the onset of cognitive impairment and AD clinical diagnosis

[140]. Interestingly, many PET-amyloid positive cases will not go on to develop AD or AD-

related dementia, suggesting that a concomitant event (perhaps vascular) may be required to

initiate cognitive impairment and the neurodegenerative cascade.

Successful treatments of AD and other neurodegenerative diseases lie in early diagnosis and

early intervention, as opposed to disease reversal. As our understanding of AD advances, the

need for more accurate diagnosis will likely drive neuroimaging towards more ligand- and

functional-based technology such that molecular abnormalities and early functional changes

can be detected. Multimodal imaging, namely combining information across scanning

modalities, is an exciting development that would greatly enhance the clinical utility of each

imaging modality and thus potentially improve the sensitivity and/or specificity of

neuroimaging to detect various regional subtle cerebrovascular changes related to AD

development/progression.

Conclusions

In summary, this review discusses AD-related cerebrovascular dysfunctions measured via

different neuroimaging modalities, specifically: BBB integrity (DCE-MRI), CBF

dysregulation (ASL-MRI; BOLD fMRI), CBV and CMRO2 (BOLD fMRI), microbleeding

events (T2*- and SWI-MRI), white matter connectivity and WML (DTI-MRI), regional

brain atrophy (T1- and T2/FLAIR-weighted imaging), CMRglc (FDG-PET), and amyloid

deposition (PiB-PET). These neuroimaging approaches are contributing notably to the basic

understanding of AD pathophysiology, and have potential diagnostic utility for AD via their

ability to detect early neurovascular dysfunction. In particular, new dynamic MRI

approaches including DCE- and ASL-type modalities and novel ways of acquiring and of

analyzing imaging datasets have freshly contributed strong evidence of vasoreactivity

changes and BBB disruption in preclinical AD [39, 115, 120].

The use of newly improved dynamic, functional, structural, and molecular imaging

biomarkers conducted simultaneously with molecular biomarker detection in biofluids (i.e.,

blood and CSF) is necessary to better understand the pathophysiological processes

associated with defined stages of AD development. Future longitudinal neuroimaging (i.e.,

especially DCE- and ASL-MRI) and CSF/blood biomarker studies in human subjects with

NCI and/or MCI that also incorporate risk factors for AD (i.e., genetic, vascular,

environmental, and lifestyle) should continue to interrogate the role of neurovascular

mechanisms in the pathophysiology of dementia due to AD and other causes [116].

Clarifying the precise mechanisms through which vascular insults influence AD

development would have enormous benefit in the pursuits to identify novel biological targets

for drug development and to aid in patient-directed treatment efforts.

Additional research is necessary to elucidate the temporal sequence of AD pathophysiology

(i.e., increased BBB permeability, vasoreactivity disruptions, structural changes and atrophy,

functional alterations in brain networks, and molecular changes) and determine the

mechanism via which these events and AD risk factors are causally linked to AD etiology. In

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conclusion, it is our hope that this issue will enrich the quest to conquer AD using

multimodal dynamic, functional, structural, and molecular neuroimaging approaches.

Acknowledgments

We thank the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Zilkha Senior Scholar program, and the Alzheimer’s Association for support. Dr. Zlokovic’s research is supported by the NIH through grants R37NS34467, R37AG23084, and R01AG039452. Dr. Pa’s research is supported by the NIH through grant R01AG046928 and the Alzheimer’s Association grant NIRP12259277. Dr. Toga’s research is supported by the NIH through grant P41EB015922. We apologize to those authors whose original work we were not able to cite due to the limited length of this review.

Abbreviations

AD Alzheimer’s disease

AIF Arterial input function

APOE Apolipoprotein E

AR Albumin ratio

ASL Arterial spin labeling

Aβ Amyloid beta

BBB Blood–brain barrier

BOLD Blood oxygen level-dependent

CA1 Cornu ammonis 1

CAA Cerebral amyloid angiopathy

CBF Cerebral blood flow

CBV Cerebral blood volume

CMB Cerebral microbleed

CMRglc Cerebral metabolic rate of glucose

CMRO2 Cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen consumption

CSF Cerebrospinal fluid

DCE Dynamic contrast-enhanced

dHb Deoxyhemoglobin

DMN Default mode network

DRS Dementia rating scale

DTI Diffusion tensor imaging

FA Fractional anisotropy

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FDG Fluorodeoxyglucose

FLAIR Fluid-attenuated inversion recovery

fMRI Functional magnetic resonance imaging

GBCA Gadolinium-based contrast agent

Hct Hematocrit

kDa KiloDalton

MCI Mild cognitive impairment

MD Mean diffusivity

MRI Magnetic resonance imaging

NCI No cognitive impairment

NVU Neurovascular unit

PET Positron emission tomography

PiB Pittsburgh compound B

ROI Region-of-interest

SNR Signal-to-noise ratio

sPDGFRβ Soluble platelet-derived growth factor receptor-β

SWI Susceptibility weighted imaging

T Tesla

WM White matter

WMH White matter hyperintensity

WML White matter lesion

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Fig. 1. BBB breakdown in the hippocampus during normal aging and aging associated with AD

using high-resolution DCE-MRI. Representative BBB Ktrans maps within the left

hippocampus in young (23–47 years) and older (55–91 years) individuals with no cognitive

impairment (NCI), as well as in older MCI and AD patients (Modified from [115], images

courtesy of Axel Montagne)

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Fig. 2. Decreases in regional CBF with dementia. a Coronal slices display reduced hippocampal,

caudate, and thalamic CBF in AD vs. MCI (right) and AD vs. no cognitive impairment

(NCI) (left) groups on voxel-level comparison. b The thalamic CBF decreases by 20 % in

AD compared to MCI individuals. c Thalamic CBF is associated with global cognitive

impairment on the Dementia Rating Scale (DRS) in AD (red) and MCI (green). d Caudate

CBF reduction is associated with increased white matter lesions (WMLs) severity across the

NCI-MCI-AD spectrum. All ps < 0.05 after correcting for voxel-level multiple comparisons.

NCI, n = 46; MCI, n = 23; AD, n = 12 (Modified from [39, 120]; images courtesy of Daniel

Nation)

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Fig. 3. White matter disruptions in individuals with MCI. Patients with MCI have lower fractional

anisotropy, a measure of white matter (WM) integrity, when compared to cognitively normal

older adults (n = 37) using tract-based spatial statistics, p < 0.05, threshold-free cluster

enhancement-corrected for multiple comparisons. The regions highlighted in red, including

the inferior frontal WM and parahippocampal WM (red arrows), may be early sites of

damage in individuals at-risk for AD (L left; R right) (images courtesy of Judy Pa)

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Fig. 4. Hippocampal subregion segmentation: variations in image acquisition and segmentation

protocols. a The figure shows the left hippocampus of a 36-year-old healthy control acquired

with different scanners (3 and 7 T) and sequences [T1-weighted (T1w) and T2w imaging].

Images were segmented by multiple groups (using their own segmentation protocol/atlas)

participating in the Hippocampal Subfields Group. Images correspond to the head of the

hippocampus. b Segmentation examples indicating which substructures were segmented in

each protocol (Modified from [62])

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FAQs

What is the brain imaging for Alzheimer's disease? ›

Brain scans (FDG PET) used in the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. The scans show a healthy brain, a brain with mild cognitive impairment and a brain with Alzheimer's disease. Areas that are black and blue represent healthy brain metabolism.

What is the best scan to detect Alzheimer's? ›

Positron emission tomography (PET)

Amyloid PET scans measure abnormal deposits of a protein called beta-amyloid. Higher levels of beta-amyloid are consistent with the presence of amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Medical specialists may use amyloid PET imaging to help diagnose Alzheimer's.

How does Alzheimer's affect the brain? ›

Alzheimer's disease causes the brain to shrink and brain cells to eventually die. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia — a gradual decline in memory, thinking, behavior and social skills. These changes affect a person's ability to function.

Which is a neurological hallmark of Alzheimer's disease? ›

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by two abnormalities in the brain: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques, which are found in the tissue between the nerve cells, are unusual clumps of a protein called beta amyloid along with degenerating bits of neurons and other cells.

What does vascular dementia look like on MRI? ›

Patients with vascular dementia induced by ischemic stroke are characterized by cortical atrophy, widening of the cerebral sulcus, large infarct lesion area and sparse cerebral white matter. Cranial MRI can effectively identify these features.

What does dementia look like on a brain scan? ›

The hippocampus of a person with Alzheimer's typically appears shrunken (atrophied) on a brain scan. Vascular dementia, on the other hand, results from long-term disease of the blood vessels in your brain. This can cause multiple strokes that lead to a buildup of damage and a decline in cognitive function.

What is the 2 finger test for dementia? ›

Simplistically, the test involves an examiner putting his or her hands into a specific shape — for example, interlocking the fingers in a particular manner — and then having the patient try to mimic it. Patients are evaluated on how well they can reproduce the specific shape created by the examiner.

What is the most reliable test to diagnose Alzheimer's disease? ›

Perform brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET), to support an Alzheimer's diagnosis or rule out other possible causes for symptoms.

What does a shadow on the brain mean? ›

On CT or MRI scans, brain lesions appear as dark or light spots that don't look like normal brain tissue. Usually, a brain lesion is an incidental finding unrelated to the condition or symptom that led to the imaging test in the first place.

What foods reduce tau protein in the brain? ›

A recent study showed that a molecule in green tea breaks apart tangles of the protein tau, which builds up in the brain due to Alzheimer's.

What condition mimics the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease? ›

Diseases That Look Like Alzheimer's (But Aren't)
  • Dementia Doesn't Always Mean Alzheimer's.
  • Depression.
  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)
  • Thyroid Disease.
  • Diabetes.
  • Lyme Disease.
  • Vitamin B12 Deficiency.
  • Certain Drugs.
Sep 11, 2022

What are the neurological symptoms of Alzheimer's disease? ›

Symptoms may include:
  • Memory loss that affects job skills, especially short-term memory loss.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks.
  • Problems with language.
  • Disorientation to time and place.
  • Poor or decreased judgment.
  • Problems with abstract thinking.
  • Misplacing things.
  • Changes in mood or behavior.

What are the two major findings in the Alzheimer's brain? ›

These plaques and tangles in the brain are still considered some of the main features of Alzheimer's. Another feature is the loss of connections between neurons in the brain.

What are the four abnormalities of Alzheimer's brain? ›

The neuropathological hallmarks of Alzheimer disease (AD) include “positive” lesions such as amyloid plaques and cerebral amyloid angiopathy, neurofibrillary tangles, and glial responses, and “negative” lesions such as neuronal and synaptic loss.

Which imaging technique is specific for Alzheimer? ›

Fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) PET imaging scans show areas of the brain in which nutrients are poorly metabolized. Finding patterns in the areas of low metabolism can help distinguish between Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Amyloid PET imaging can measure the burden of amyloid deposits in the brain.

What are the brain imaging biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease? ›

accumulation of protein fragments known as beta-amyloid and tau — are biomarkers that can be detected using imaging technologies or assessed through a cerebrospinal fluid test. However, the presence of these biomarkers alone is not sufficient to determine an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Can fMRI detect Alzheimer's disease? ›

rs-fMRI networks have been shown to be highly sensitive to AD (19). We and other investigators have reported the ability of rs-fMRI in identification of patients with MCI and AD (13–15, 20). We demonstrated potential of rs-fMRI in prediction of the early stage of AD (10).

What is the imaging of choice for dementia patients? ›

Routine structural imaging with CT or MR imaging will show characteristic atrophy in the frontal lobes involving the ventromedial, orbitofrontal, anterior cingulate, anterior insula, and amygdala in established cases (Fig 7B).

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