Tau, amyloid, and cascading network failure across the Alzheimer's disease spectrum

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67 Scopus citations


Functionally related brain regions are selectively vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease pathophysiology. However, molecular markers of this pathophysiology (i.e., beta-amyloid and tau aggregates) have discrepant spatial and temporal patterns of progression within these selectively vulnerable brain regions. Existing reductionist pathophysiologic models cannot account for these large-scale spatiotemporal inconsistencies. Within the framework of the recently proposed cascading network failure model of Alzheimer's disease, however, these large-scale patterns are to be expected. This model postulates the following: 1) a tau-associated, circumscribed network disruption occurs in brain regions specific to a given phenotype in clinically normal individuals; 2) this disruption can trigger phenotype independent, stereotypic, and amyloid-associated compensatory brain network changes indexed by changes in the default mode network; 3) amyloid deposition marks a saturation of functional compensation and portends an acceleration of the inciting phenotype specific, and tau-associated, network failure. With the advent of in vivo molecular imaging of tau pathology, combined with amyloid and functional network imaging, it is now possible to investigate the relationship between functional brain networks, tau, and amyloid across the disease spectrum within these selectively vulnerable brain regions. In a large cohort (n = 218) spanning the Alzheimer's disease spectrum from young, amyloid negative, cognitively normal subjects to Alzheimer's disease dementia, we found several distinct spatial patterns of tau deposition, including ‘Braak-like’ and ‘non-Braak-like’, across functionally related brain regions. Rather than arising focally and spreading sequentially, elevated tau signal seems to occur system-wide based on inferences made from multiple cross-sectional analyses we conducted looking at regional patterns of tau signal. Younger age-of-disease-onset was associated with ‘non-Braak-like’ patterns of tau, suggesting an association with atypical clinical phenotypes. As predicted by the cascading network failure model of Alzheimer's disease, we found that amyloid is a partial mediator of the relationship between functional network failure and tau deposition in functionally connected brain regions. This study implicates large-scale brain networks in the pathophysiology of tau deposition and offers support to models incorporating large-scale network physiology into disease models linking tau and amyloid, such as the cascading network failure model of Alzheimer's disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)143-159
Number of pages17
StatePublished - Dec 2017


  • AV-1451
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Braak staging
  • Cascading network failure
  • Complex systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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