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Neocortical Synapse Density and Braak Stage in the Lewy Body Variant of Alzheimer Disease: A Comparison with Classic Alzheimer Disease and Normal Aging

Daniel F. Brown MD, Richard C. Risser MS, Eileen H. Bigio MD, Patrick Tripp BA, Ashley Stiegler BA, Erin Welch BS, Kathleen P. Eagan MS, Christa L. Hladik, Charles L. White III MD
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/00005072-199810000-00007 955-960 First published online: 1 October 1998


Substantial numbers of cortical and subcortical Lewy bodies are seen in approximately one quarter of patients whose brains show sufficient histopathologic changes for a neuropathologic diagnosis of definite Alzheimer disease (AD). This subset of cases has been named the Lewy body variant of AD (LBV). Despite comparable dementia and the presence of neocortical senile plaques in LBV patients, the overall burden of neuropathologic changes, in particular neurofibrillary tangles (NET), is less than in classic AD. While NFT frequency correlates with dementia severity in classic AD, the cognitive impairment in patients with LBV cannot be completely explained by such changes. Since several studies have suggested a role for synapse loss in relation to dementia severity in classic AD, we decided to investigate the role of synapse loss as a candidate for the cognitive impairment of LBV.

The Braak staging method is based upon the distribution and severity of neurofibrillary changes, and one therefore would expect LBV cases to be assigned to lower Braak stages. In the present study we assigned a Braak stage to 14 LBV cases, 31 classic AD cases, and a group of 10 non-demented aged controls. We compared the severity of synapse loss as determined by ELISA immunoassay for synaptophysin and Braak stage among the three diagnostic groups. When compared to normal controls, synaptophysin concentrations were statistically significantly lower in both demented groups. There was comparable synapse loss in LBV and AD despite significantly lower Braak stages in the LBV cases. These results suggest a major role for loss of synapses as the substrate of cognitive impairment in LBV.

Key Words
  • Alzheimer disease
  • Braak staging
  • Lewy body disease
  • Synaptophysin