The basal forebrain cholinergic system in aging and dementia. Rescuing cholinergic neurons from neurotoxic amyloid-β42 with memantine

Csaba Nyakas, Ivica Granic, László G. Halmy, Pradeep Banerjee, Paul G.M. Luiten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

73 Citations (Scopus)


The dysfunction and loss of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons and their cortical projections are among the earliest pathological events in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). The evidence pointing to cholinergic impairments come from studies that report a decline in the activity of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) and acetylcholine esterase (AChE), acetylcholine (ACh) release and the levels of nicotinic and muscarinic receptors, and loss of cholinergic basal forebrain neurons in the AD brain. Alzheimer's disease pathology is characterized by an extensive loss of synapses and neuritic branchings which are the dominant scenario as compared to the loss of the neuronal cell bodies themselves. The appearance of cholinergic neuritic dystrophy, i.e. aberrant fibers and fiber swelling are more and more pronounced during brain aging and widely common in AD. When taking amyloid-β (Aβ) deposition as the ultimate causal factor of Alzheimer's disease the role of Aβ in cholinergic dysfunction should be considered. In that respect it has been stated that ACh release and synthesis are depressed, axonal transport is inhibited, and that ACh degradation is affected in the presence of Aβ peptides. β-Amyloid peptide 1-42, the principal constituent of the neuritic plaques seen in AD patients, is known to trigger excess amount of glutamate in the synaptic cleft by inhibiting the astroglial glutamate transporter and to increase the intracellular Ca2+ level. Based on the glutamatergic overexcitation theory of AD progression, the function of NMDA receptors and treatment with NMDA antagonists underlie some recent therapeutic applications. Memantine, a moderate affinity uncompetitive NMDA receptor antagonist interacts with its target only during states of pathological activation but does not interfere with the physiological receptor functions. In this study the neuroprotective effect of memantine on the forebrain cholinergic neurons against Aβ42 oligomers-induced toxicity was studied in an in vivo rat dementia model. We found that memantine rescued the neocortical cholinergic fibers originating from the basal forebrain cholinergic neurons, attenuated microglial activation around the intracerebral lesion sides, and improved attention and memory of Aβ42-injected rats exhibiting impaired learning and loss of cholinergic innervation of neocortex.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)594-603
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioural Brain Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 10 2011


  • Aging
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Cholinergic system
  • Memantine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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