Evidence for retrograde degeneration of epinephrine neurons in Alzheimer's disease

William J. Burke, Hyung D. Chung, Jung S. Huang, Shuan S. Huang, John H. Haring, Randy Strong, Gary L. Marchshall, Tong H. Joh

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42 Scopus citations


Alzheimer's disease (AD) is associated with a progressive loss of locus ceruleus neurons. These noradrenergic neurons receive a major afferent projection from epinephrine neurons in epinephrine cell groups in the brainstem. The epinephrine neurons have a specific enzymatic Marchker, phenylethanolamine N‐methyltransferase (PNMT), which allows them to be identified chemically and immunohistochemically. We have previously reported a Decemberrease in PNMT in brains of patients with AD. We now report that the Decemberrease in PNMT activity in projections to the locus ceruleus is not due to the loss of epinephrine neurons, although up to 33% of these neurons are atrophic. The Decemberrease in presynaptic PNMT does, however, correlate with the loss of postsynaptic locus ceruleus neurons in brains from AD patients. The percentage of degenerating neurons in the epinephrine nuclei also correlates significantly with the amount of loss of locus ceruleus neurons in AD. In addition, there is a 55% Decemberrease in mitogen activity, a nonspecific measure of growth or maintenance factors, in dialysed locus ceruleus extracts from the AD patients compared to those from control subjects. The mitogen activity in the locus ceruleus was significantly correlated with PNMT activity and with the density of locus ceruleus neurons in all cases examined. These findings provide evidence for the hypothesis that retrograde degeneration is a mechanism of neuronal degeneration in AD and suggest that trophic factors may play a role in this process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)532-536
Number of pages5
JournalAnnals of neurology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1988
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neurology


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