Tau burden and the functional connectome in Alzheimer’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy.


Alzheimer's disease and progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) represent neurodegenerative tauopathies with predominantly cortical versus subcortical disease burden. In Alzheimer's disease, neuropathology and atrophy preferentially affect 'hub' brain regions that are densely connected. It was unclear whether hubs are differentially affected by neurodegeneration because they are more likely to receive pathological proteins that propagate trans-neuronally, in a prion-like manner, or whether they are selectively vulnerable due to a lack of local trophic factors, higher metabolic demands, or differential gene expression. We assessed the relationship between tau burden and brain functional connectivity, by combining in vivo PET imaging using the ligand AV-1451, and graph theoretic measures of resting state functional MRI in 17 patients with Alzheimer's disease, 17 patients with PSP, and 12 controls. Strongly connected nodes displayed more tau pathology in Alzheimer's disease, independently of intrinsic connectivity network, validating the predictions of theories of trans-neuronal spread but not supporting a role for metabolic demands or deficient trophic support in tau accumulation. This was not a compensatory phenomenon, as the functional consequence of increasing tau burden in Alzheimer's disease was a progressive weakening of the connectivity of these same nodes, reducing weighted degree and local efficiency and resulting in weaker 'small-world' properties. Conversely, in PSP, unlike in Alzheimer's disease, those nodes that accrued pathological tau were those that displayed graph metric properties associated with increased metabolic demand and a lack of trophic support rather than strong functional connectivity. Together, these findings go some way towards explaining why Alzheimer's disease affects large scale connectivity networks throughout cortex while neuropathology in PSP is concentrated in a small number of subcortical structures. Further, we demonstrate that in PSP increasing tau burden in midbrain and deep nuclei was associated with strengthened cortico-cortical functional connectivity. Disrupted cortico-subcortical and cortico-brainstem interactions meant that information transfer took less direct paths, passing through a larger number of cortical nodes, reducing closeness centrality and eigenvector centrality in PSP, while increasing weighted degree, clustering, betweenness centrality and local efficiency. Our results have wide-ranging implications, from the validation of models of tau trafficking in humans to understanding the relationship between regional tau burden and brain functional reorganization.