Basal forebrain cholinergic system in the dementias: Vulnerability, resilience, and resistance

Changiz Geula, Sara R. Dunlop, Ivan Ayala, Allegra S. Kawles, Margaret E. Flanagan, Tamar Gefen, Marek Marsel Mesulam

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The basal forebrain cholinergic neurons (BFCN) provide the primary source of cholinergic innervation of the human cerebral cortex. They are involved in the cognitive processes of learning, memory, and attention. These neurons are differentially vulnerable in various neuropathologic entities that cause dementia. This review summarizes the relevance to BFCN of neuropathologic markers associated with dementias, including the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's disease (AD), the Lewy bodies of diffuse Lewy body disease, the tauopathy of frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD-TAU) and the TDP-43 proteinopathy of FTLD-TDP. Each of these proteinopathies has a different relationship to BFCN and their corticofugal axons. Available evidence points to early and substantial degeneration of the BFCN in AD and diffuse Lewy body disease. In AD, the major neurodegenerative correlate is accumulation of phosphotau in neurofibrillary tangles. However, these neurons are less vulnerable to the tauopathy of FTLD. An intriguing finding is that the intracellular tau of AD causes destruction of the BFCN, whereas that of FTLD does not. This observation has profound implications for exploring the impact of different species of tauopathy on neuronal survival. The proteinopathy of FTLD-TDP shows virtually no abnormal inclusions within the BFCN. Thus, the BFCN are highly vulnerable to the neurodegenerative effects of tauopathy in AD, resilient to the neurodegenerative effect of tauopathy in FTLD and apparently resistant to the emergence of proteinopathy in FTLD-TDP and perhaps also in Pick's disease. Investigations are beginning to shed light on the potential mechanisms of this differential vulnerability and their implications for therapeutic intervention. (Figure presented.).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1394-1411
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of neurochemistry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Alzheimer's disease
  • TDP-43 proteinopathy
  • basal forebrain cholinergic neurons
  • diffuse lewy body disease
  • frontotemporal lobar degeneration
  • tauopathy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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