BACKGROUND Neuronal hyperexcitability characterizes the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In animals, early misfolded tau and amyloid-β (Aβ) protein accumulation — both central to AD neuropathology — promote cortical excitability and neuronal network dysfunction. In healthy humans, misfolded tau and Aβ aggregates are first detected, respectively, in the brainstem and frontomedial and temporobasal cortices, decades prior to the onset of AD cognitive symptoms. Whether cortical excitability is related to early brainstem tau — and its associated neuroinflammation — and cortical Aβ aggregations remains unknown.METHODS We probed frontal cortex excitability, using transcranial magnetic stimulation combined with electroencephalography, in a sample of 64 healthy late-middle–aged individuals (50–69 years; 45 women and 19 men). We assessed whole-brain [18F]THK5351 PET uptake as a proxy measure of tau/neuroinflammation, and we assessed whole-brain Aβ burden with [18F]Flutemetamol or [18F]Florbetapir radiotracers.RESULTS We found that higher [18F]THK5351 uptake in a brainstem monoaminergic compartment was associated with increased cortical excitability (r = 0.29, P = 0.02). By contrast, [18F]THK5351 PET signal in the hippocampal formation, although strongly correlated with brainstem signal in whole-brain voxel-based quantification analyses (P value corrected for family-wise error [PFWE-corrected] < 0.001), was not significantly associated with cortical excitability (r = 0.14, P = 0.25). Importantly, no significant association was found between early Aβ cortical deposits and cortical excitability (r = –0.20, P = 0.11).CONCLUSION These findings reveal potential brain substrates for increased cortical excitability in preclinical AD and may constitute functional in vivo correlates of early brainstem tau accumulation and neuroinflammation in humans.TRIAL REGISTRATION EudraCT 2016-001436-35.FUNDING F.R.S.-FNRS Belgium, Wallonie-Bruxelles International, ULiège, Fondation Simone et Pierre Clerdent, European Regional Development Fund.
Maxime Van Egroo, Daphne Chylinski, Justinas Narbutas, Gabriel Besson, Vincenzo Muto, Christina Schmidt, Davide Marzoli, Paolo Cardone, Nora Vandeleene, Martin Grignard, André Luxen, Eric Salmon, Christian Lambert, Christine Bastin, Fabienne Collette, Christophe Phillips, Pierre Maquet, Mohamed Ali Bahri, Evelyne Balteau, Gilles Vandewalle