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Original Investigation
October 2018

Assessing Synaptic Density in Alzheimer Disease With Synaptic Vesicle Glycoprotein 2A Positron Emission Tomographic Imaging

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 2Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut
JAMA Neurol. 2018;75(10):1215-1224. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2018.1836
Key Points

Question  Can we measure synaptic loss in Alzheimer disease in vivo using positron emission tomography (PET) with the specific radioligand 11C-UCB-J?

Findings  This cross-sectional PET imaging study examined 11C-UCB-J–specific binding as a biomarker for synaptic density in 11 cognitively normal elderly participants and 10 participants with mild cognitive impairment to early Alzheimer disease. Significant reductions of hippocampal synaptic densities were found in participants with Alzheimer disease compared with age-matched participants who were cognitively normal.

Meaning  PET scanning with 11C-UCB-J may provide a direct measure of synaptic density in Alzheimer disease in vivo; it yields results consistent with previous neuropathological investigations.


Importance  Synaptic loss is well established as the major structural correlate of cognitive impairment in Alzheimer disease (AD). The ability to measure synaptic density in vivo could accelerate the development of disease-modifying treatments for AD. Synaptic vesicle glycoprotein 2A is an essential vesicle membrane protein expressed in virtually all synapses and could serve as a suitable target for synaptic density.

Objective  To compare hippocampal synaptic vesicle glycoprotein 2A (SV2A) binding in participants with AD and cognitively normal participants using positron emission tomographic (PET) imaging.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This cross-sectional study recruited 10 participants with AD and 11 participants who were cognitively normal between November 2015 and June 2017. We hypothesized a reduction in hippocampal SV2A binding in AD, based on the early degeneration of entorhinal cortical cell projections to the hippocampus (via the perforant path) and hippocampal SV2A reductions that had been observed in postmortem studies. Participants underwent high-resolution PET scanning with ((R)-1-((3-(11C-methyl-11C)pyridin-4-yl)methyl)-4-(3,4,5-trifluorophenyl)pyrrolidin-2-one), a compound more commonly known as 11C-UCB-J, for SV2A. They also underwent high-resolution PET scanning with carbon 11–labeled Pittsburgh Compound B (11C-PiB) for β-amyloid, magnetic resonance imaging, and cognitive and neurologic evaluation.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Outcomes were 11C-UCB-J–specific binding (binding potential [BPND]) via PET imaging in brain regions of interest in participants with AD and participants who were cognitively normal.

Results  Ten participants with AD (5 male and 5 female; mean [SD] age, 72.7 [6.3] years; 10 [100%] β-amyloid positive) were compared with 11 participants who were cognitively normal (5 male and 6 female; mean [SD] age, 72.9 [8.7] years; 11 [100%] β-amyloid negative). Participants with AD spanned the disease stages from amnestic mild cognitive impairment (n = 5) to mild dementia (n = 5). Participants with AD had significant reduction in hippocampal SV2A specific binding (41%) compared with cognitively normal participants, as assessed by 11C-UCB-J–PET BPND (cognitively normal participants: mean [SD] BPND, 1.47 [0.37]; participants with AD: 0.87 [0.50]; P = .005). These reductions remained significant after correction for atrophy (ie, partial volume correction; participants who were cognitively normal: mean [SD], 2.71 [0.46]; participants with AD: 2.15 [0.55]; P = .02). Hippocampal SV2A-specific binding BPND was correlated with a composite episodic memory score in the overall sample (R = 0.56; P = .01).

Conclusions and Relevance  To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate synaptic density in vivo in AD using 11C-UCB-J–PET imaging. This approach may provide a direct measure of synaptic density, and it therefore holds promise as an in vivo biomarker for AD and as an outcome measure for trials of disease-modifying therapies, particularly those targeted at the preservation and restoration of synapses.