The mechanistic link between selective vulnerability of the locus coeruleus and neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease

Billie J. Matchett, Lea T. Grinberg, Panos Theofilas, Melissa E. Murray

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is neuropathologically characterized by the intracellular accumulation of hyperphosphorylated tau and the extracellular deposition of amyloid-β plaques, which affect certain brain regions in a progressive manner. The locus coeruleus (LC), a small nucleus in the pons of the brainstem, is widely recognized as one of the earliest sites of neurofibrillary tangle formation in AD. Patients with AD exhibit significant neuronal loss in the LC, resulting in a marked reduction of its size and function. The LC, which vastly innervates several regions of the brain, is the primary source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (NE) in the central nervous system. Considering that NE is a major modulator of behavior, contributing to neuroprotection and suppression of neuroinflammation, degeneration of the LC in AD and the ultimate dysregulation of the LC–NE system has detrimental effects in the brain. In this review, we detail the neuroanatomy and function of the LC, its essential role in neuroprotection, and how this is dysregulated in AD. We discuss AD-related neuropathologic changes in the LC and mechanisms by which LC neurons are selectively vulnerable to insult. Further, we elucidate the neurotoxic effects of LC de-innervation both locally and at projection sites, and how this augments disease pathology, progression and severity. We summarize how preservation of the LC–NE system could be used in the treatment of AD and other neurodegenerative diseases affected by LC degeneration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)631-650
Number of pages20
JournalActa neuropathologica
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Locus coeruleus
  • Norepinephrine
  • Selective vulnerability
  • Tau

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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