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Neuropathological correlates and genetic architecture of microglial activation in elderly human brain

By Daniel Felsky, Tina Roostaei, Kwangsik Nho, Shannon L. Risacher, Elizabeth M Bradshaw, Vlad Petyuk, Julie A Schneider, Andrew Saykin, David A. Bennett, Philip L. De Jager

Posted 19 Jun 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/350389 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-08279-3)

Microglia, the resident immune cells of the brain, have important roles in brain health. However, little is known about the regulation and consequences of microglial activation in the aging human brain. We assessed the effect of microglial activation in the aging human brain by calculating the proportion of activated microglia (PAM), based on morphologically defined stages of activation in four regions sampled postmortem from up to 225 elderly individuals. We found that cortical and not subcortical PAM measures were strongly associated with β-amyloid, tau-related neuropathology, and rates of cognitive decline. Effect sizes for PAM measures are substantial, comparable to that of APOE ε4, the strongest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. Mediation modeling suggests that PAM accelerates accumulation of tau pathology leading to cognitive decline, supporting an upstream role for microglial activation in Alzheimer's disease. Genome-wide analyses identified a common variant (rs2997325) influencing cortical PAM that also affected in vivo microglial activation measured by positron emission tomography using [11C]-PBR28 in an independent cohort. Finally, we identify overlaps of PAM's genetic architecture with those of Alzheimer's disease, educational attainment, and several other traits.

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