Alzheimer's Disease Is Type 3 Diabetes–Evidence Reviewed. (Potential Roles of Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Alzheimer's Disease Pathogenesis)
Alzheimer's disease (AD) has characteristic histopathological, molecular, and biochemical abnormalities, including cell loss; abundant neurofibrillary tangles; dystrophic neurites; amyloid precursor protein, amyloid-β (APP-Aβ) deposits; increased activation of prodeath genes and signaling pathways; impaired energy metabolism; mitochondrial dysfunction; chronic oxidative stress; and DNA damage. Gaining a better understanding of AD pathogenesis will require a framework that mechanistically interlinks all these phenomena. Currently, there is a rapid growth in the literature pointing toward insulin deficiency and insulin resistance as mediators of AD-type neurodegeneration, but this surge of new information is riddled with conflicting and unresolved concepts regarding the potential contributions of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), metabolic syndrome, and obesity to AD pathogenesis. Herein, we review the evidence that (1) T2DM causes brain insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and cognitive impairment, but its aggregate effects fall far short of mimicking AD; (2) extensive disturbances in brain insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) signaling mechanisms represent early and progressive abnormalities and could account for the majority of molecular, biochemical, and histopathological lesions in AD; (3) experimental brain diabetes produced by intracerebral administration of streptozotocin shares many features with AD, including cognitive impairment and disturbances in acetylcholine homeostasis; and (4) experimental brain diabetes is treatable with insulin sensitizer agents, i.e., drugs currently used to treat T2DM. We conclude that the term “type 3 diabetes” accurately reflects the fact that AD represents a form of diabetes that selectively involves the brain and has molecular and biochemical features that overlap with both type 1 diabetes mellitus and T2DM.
Keywords: Alzheimer's disease, central nervous system, diabetes, insulin gene expression, insulin signaling
Alzheimer's disease (AD) can only be diagnosed with certainty by postmortem demonstration of abundant neurofibrillary tangles and neuritic plaques with accompanying accumulation of amyloid precursor protein, amyloid-β (APP-Aβ) deposits in plaques and vessel walls in selected regions of the brain. Dementia-associated structural lesions are caused by neuronal cytoskeletal collapse and accumulation of hyperphosphorylated and polyubiquitinated microtubule-associated proteins, such as tau, resulting in the formation of neurofibrillary tangles, dystrophic neuritis, and neuropil threads.1–3 Progressive loss of fibers and cells and disconnection of synaptic circuitry mediate the cerebral atrophy that worsens over time. The biochemical, molecular, and cellular abnormalities that precede or accompany AD neurodegeneration, including increased activation of prodeath genes and signaling pathways, impaired energy metabolism, mitochondrial dysfunction, chronic oxidative stress, and DNA damage, are virtually stereotypical,4–11 yet they lack a clear etiology. For nearly three decades of relatively intense research on AD, the inability to interlink this constellation of abnormalities under a single primary pathogenic mechanism resulted in the emergence and propagation of various heavily debated theories, each of which focused on how one particular component of AD could trigger a cascade that contributes to the development of all other known abnormalities. However, reevaluation of the older literature revealed that impairments in cerebral glucose utilization and energy metabolism represent very early abnormalities that precede or accompany the initial stages of cognitive impairment12–14 and led us to the concept that impaired insulin signaling has an important role in the pathogenesis of AD and the proposal that AD represents “type 3 diabetes.”5
Characteristic features of diabetes mellitus syndromes include impairments in insulin actions and signaling that result in chronic hyperglycemia, irrespective of subtype, etiology, pathogenesis, or insulin availability. Type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM) is caused by destruction (usually autoimmune) of pancreatic islet beta cells and attendant insulin deficiency. Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), the most common form, is caused by insulin resistance in peripheral tissues and is most frequently associated with aging, a family history of diabetes, obesity, and failure to exercise. Individuals with T2DM have hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia. Insulin resistance in T2DM is partly mediated by reduced insulin receptor expression, insulin receptor tyrosine kinase activity, insulin receptor substrate (IRS) type 1 expression, and/or phosphatidyl-inositol-3 (PI3) kinase activation in skeletal muscle and adipocytes.15 Gestational diabetes is pregnancy associated and caused by insulin deficiency and hyperglycemia. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), or metabolic syndrome, is associated with hepatic insulin resistance but overlaps with T2DM.16–18 Type 3 diabetes mellitus (T3DM, discussed later) corresponds to a chronic insulin resistance plus insulin deficiency state that is largely confined to the brain but, like NASH, can overlap with T2DM. We have proposed that T3DM represents a major pathogenic mechanism of AD neurodegeneration.5,10
Interest in clarifying the roles of T2DM, insulin resistance, and hyperinsulinemia in relation to cognitive impairment, AD-associated neuronal cytoskeletal lesions, or APP-Aβ deposits in the brain began around 2000,4,8,14,19–24 but since around 2005, this field literally exploded with new information and a new concept, i.e., that primary brain insulin resistance and insulin deficiency mediate cognitive impairment and AD.5,10,25–29 This idea was fueled by evidence that tau gene expression and phosphorylation are regulated through insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) signaling cascades.23,24 In addition, research performed in our laboratory demonstrated that many key aspects of the central nervous system (CNS) degeneration that occur in AD can be effectuated by impaired insulin signaling.30–33
By way of review, insulin and IGF-1 mediate their effects by activating complex intracellular signaling pathways starting with ligand binding to cell surface receptors, followed by autophosphorylation and activation of the intrinsic receptor tyrosine kinases.34–36 Insulin/IGF-1 receptor tyrosine kinases phosphorylate IRS molecules,34,37–39 which transmit signals downstream by activating the extracellular signal-related kinase/mitogen-activated protein kinase (ERK/MAPK) and PI3 kinase/Akt pathways, and inhibit glycogen synthase kinase 3β (GSK-3β). Major biological responses to signaling through IRS molecules include increased cell growth; survival, energy metabolism, and cholinergic gene expression; and inhibition of oxidative stress and apoptosis.39–46 These very same signaling pathways are activated in various cell types, tissues, and target organs that express insulin and IGF receptors and therefore are practically universal. Moreover, these pathways are phylogenetically conserved and have critical roles in regulating development, growth, survival, senescence, carcinogenesis, and neurodegeneration.
Potential Roles of Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Alzheimer's Disease PathogenesisThere is an ongoing debate about the degree to which T2DM and, more recently, T1DM contribute to AD pathogenesis. This concept has been fueled by the rising prevalence rates of obesity, T2DM, and AD over the past several decades. Moreover, an interrelationship among these entities is suggested by (1) increased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), dementia, or AD in individuals with T2DM47,48 or obesity/dyslipidemic disorders;49 (2) progressive brain insulin resistance and insulin deficiency in AD;5,10,26,27 (3) cognitive impairment in experimental animal models of T2DM and/or obesity;50,51 (4) AD-type neurodegeneration and cognitive impairment in experimentally induced brain insulin resistance and insulin deficiency;29,52–55 (5) improved cognitive performance in experimental models and humans with AD or MCI after treatment with insulin sensitizer agents or intranasal insulin;28,56–62 and (6) shared molecular, biochemical, and mechanistic abnormalities in T2DM and AD.47,63–67 The urgency of this problem is spotlighted by the estimated 24 million people in the world with dementia and the expectation that, if current trends continue,68 prevalence rates of AD are likely to double every 20 years in the future. While aging is clearly the strongest risk factor for AD, emerging data suggest that T2DM and dyslipidemic states can contribute substantially to the pathogenesis of AD either directly or as cofactors.68
Epidemiologic studies provide convincing evidence for a significant association between T2DM and MCI or dementia and furthermore suggest that T2DM is a significant risk factor for developing AD.47,69–73However, those findings are not without controversy,74 and in a longitudinal survey, investigators found that although borderline diabetics had a significantly increased risk for future development of diabetes, dementia, or AD, the risk effects were independent rather than linked.75 What this means is that insulin resistance, i.e., impaired ability to respond to insulin stimulation, can vary among target organs and be present in just one or two organs and not in others, a phenomenon that could explain the lack of complete overlap between T2DM and AD. Correspondingly, the finding that obesity (body mass index [BMI] > 30) without T2DM produces a three-fold increase in risk for subsequently developing AD whereas overweight, but nonobese, subjects (BMI 25–30) experience a two-fold increase in risk for AD76 calls into question the specific effects of obesity and T2DM versus a yet unknown associated factor in relation to AD pathogenesis.
Mechanistically, the increased risk of dementia in T2DM and obesity could be linked to chronic hyperglycemia, peripheral insulin resistance, oxidative stress, accumulation of advanced glycation end products, increased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and/orcerebral microvascular disease.73 The potential role of cerebral microvascular disease as a complicating, initiating, or accelerating component of AD has been recognized for years.77 However, a magnetic resonance imaging study demonstrated that older adults with T2DM have a moderately increased risk for developing lacunes and hippocampal atrophy and that the severity of those lesions increases with the duration and progression of T2DM.78 Another study showed that T2DM and impaired fasting glucose occur significantly more frequently in AD than in non-AD controls.79 However, since diffuse and neuritic plaques were similarly abundant in T2DM and control brains, and since neurofibrillary tangles, one of the hallmarks and correlates of dementia in AD, were not increased in T2DM,79 the results suggest that T2DM can enhance progression but may not be sufficient to cause AD. Therefore, what remains unclear is the net contribution of T2DM or obesity to the pathogenesis of AD-type neurodegeneration. To address this question, we utilized an established experimental model of chronic high-fat diet (HFD) feeding of C57BL/6 mice to examine the degree to which obesity/T2DM was sufficient to produce histopathological, molecular, and/or biochemical brain abnormalities of AD-type neurodegeneration, i.e., T3DM.
High-fat diet feeding for 16 weeks doubled mean body weight, caused T2DM, and marginally reduced mean brain weight.80 Those effects were associated with significantly increased levels of tau, IGF-1 receptor, IRS-1, IRS-4, ubiquitin, glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), and 4-hydroxynonenal and decreased expression of β actin. Importantly, HFD feeding also caused brain insulin resistance manifested by reduced top-level (Bmax) insulin receptor binding and modestly increased brain insulin gene expression. However, HFD fed mouse brains did not exhibit AD histopathology or increases in APP-Aβ or phospho-tau, nor were there impairments in IGF signaling, which typically occurs in AD.10 In essence, although the chronic obesity with T2DM model exhibited mild brain atrophy with insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and cytoskeleton degradation, the effects were modest compared with AD5,10 and other more robust experimental models of T3DM,28,29 and most of the molecular, biochemical, and histopathological features that typify AD were not present. Therefore, T2DM and obesity may contribute to, i.e., serve as cofactors of AD but by themselves are probably not sufficient to cause AD. Moreover, the findings in the T2DM/obesity model indicate the unlikelihood that brain insulin resistance is sufficient to cause AD and that additional significant abnormalities, such as ongoing DNA damage and mitochondrial dysfunction, are required.
Alzheimer's Disease is Type 3 Diabetes: Evidence from Human StudiesThis hypothesis was directly investigated by first examining postmortem cases of advanced AD and determining if the neurodegeneration was associated with significant abnormalities in the expression of genes encoding insulin, IGF-1, and IGF-2 peptides, their receptors, and downstream signaling mechanisms.5 In that study, we demonstrated advanced AD to be associated with strikingly reduced levels of insulin and IGF-1 polypeptide and receptor genes in the brain (Figure 1). In addition, all the signaling pathways that mediate insulin and IGF-1-stimulated neuronal survival, tau expression, energy metabolism, and mitochondrial function were perturbed in AD. This study carries additional significance because it established that, like all other pancreatic and intestinal polypeptide genes, the insulin gene was also expressed in the adult human brain. Moreover, the results taught us that endogenous brain deficiencies in insulin, IGF-1, IGF-2, and their corresponding receptors, in the absence of T2DM or obesity, could be linked to the most common form of dementia-associated neurodegeneration in the Western hemisphere. Since the abnormalities identified in the brain were quite similar to the effects of T1DM or T2DM (though none of the patients had either of these diseases), including abnormalities in IGFs,81–83 which are important for islet cell function,84,85 we proposed the concept that AD may represent a brain-specific form of diabetes mellitus and coined the term “type 3 diabetes.”