Females show a disproportionate burden of Alzheimer's disease pathology and higher Alzheimer's disease dementia prevalences compared to males, yet the mechanisms driving these vulnerabilities are unknown. There is sexual dimorphism in immunological functioning, and neuroimmune processes are implicated in Alzheimer's disease genesis. Using neuropathology indicators from human brain tissue, we examined the mediational role of microglial activation on the relationship between amyloid and tau and how it differs by sex. 187 decedents (64% female; 89 mean age at death; 62% non-demented) from the Rush Memory and Aging Project completed neuropathological evaluations with brain tissue quantified for microglial activation, amyloid-β and tau. Proportion of morphologically activated microglia was determined via immunohistochemistry (HLA-DP-DQ-DR) and morphological staging (stage I, II or III). Amyloid-β and tau burden were quantified via immunohistochemistry (M00872 or AT8, respectively). Using causal counterfactual modelling, we estimated the mediational effect of microglial activation on the amyloid-β to tau relationship in the whole sample and stratified by sex (amyloid-β → microglial activation → tau). Alternative models tested the role of microglia activation as the precipitating event (microglial activation → amyloid-β → tau). Microglial activation significantly mediated 33% [95% confidence interval (CI) 10-67] of the relationship between amyloid-β and tau in the whole sample; stratified analyses suggested this effect was stronger and only statistically significant in females. 57% (95% CI 22-100) of the effect of amyloid-β on tau was mediated through microglial activation in females, compared to 19% (95% CI 0-64) in males. Regional analyses suggested that mediational effects were driven by greater cortical versus subcortical microglial activation. Relationships were independent of cerebrovascular disease indices. Alternative models suggested that in females, microglial activation was a significant exposure both preceding the amyloid-β to tau relationship (mediational effect: 50%, 95% CI 23-90) and directly related to tau burden (microglia direct effect: 50%, 95% CI 10-77). By contrast, in males, only the direct effect of microglial activation to tau reached significance (74%, 95% CI 32-100) (mediational effect: 26%, 95% CI 0-68). Our models suggest a reciprocal, bidirectional relationship between amyloid-β and microglial activation that significantly accounts for tau burden in females. By contrast, in males, direct independent (non-mediational) relationships between microglial activation or amyloid-β with tau were observed. Microglial activation may be disproportionately important for Alzheimer's disease pathogenesis in females. Determining sex-specific vulnerabilities to Alzheimer's disease development both inform fundamental pathophysiology and support precision health approaches for this heterogeneous disease.
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