PET imaging of synaptic density
Reduced synaptic density has been found in many brain disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism, depression, schizophrenia, TBI, and in epilepsy in the seizure onset zone. Loss of synapses and neurons can happen already in pre-symptomatic stages of neurodegenerative diseases. Men have higher synaptic density than women (Alonso-Nanclares et al., 2008), but CMRO2 is similar in both sexes, and CBF is even higher in women than in men (Aanerud et al., 2017).
Immunohistochemical post-mortem studies have utilized labelled antibodies targeted to the key proteins located in pre- or postsynaptic neurons, such as synaptophysin and synaptotagmin, which is present in the membrane of synaptic vesicles (Finnema et al., 2016; Acebes, 2017; Rabiner, 2018).
[18F]FDG PET has been widely used in studies of neurodegeneration, assuming that decreased uptake reflects synaptic loss.
Large proportion of the neurons utilize GABAergic or glutamatergic transmitter systems. GABAA receptor tracer [11C]flumazenil has been widely used to study neuronal integrity, for example in epilepsy.
Synaptic vesicle glycoprotein 2A (SV2A) is ubiquitously and homogeneously located in most if not all presynaptic terminals (Bajjalieh et al., 1994), in both glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons. Number of presynaptic vesicles is closely linked to capacity for neurotransmitter release (Valtorta et al., 1990). Levetiracetam-based radioligands [11C]UCB-J and [18F]UCB-H bind specifically to SV2A, and have favourable kinetics to be used to assess the synaptic density in vivo in humans (Becker et al., 2020). [11C]UCB-J has higher affinity and specificity than [18F]UCB-H (Nabulsi et al., 2016). [11C]UCB-J binding was reduced (VT by 28% and BPND by 44%) in hippocampus in AD, while hippocampal volume was reduced by 22% (Chen et al., 2018); reductions are widespread and maintained after correction for grey matter volume loss (Mecca et al., 2020). VT of [11C]UCB-J is also markedly reduced in major depressive disorder (MDD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Holmes et al., 2019). It is not known whether a decrease in SV2A binding strictly reflects neuronal loss, or merely decreased density of SV2A in vesicles, dysfunctional SV2A, or decreased number of synaptic vesicles, or whether SV2A density is necessarily decreased in damaged neurons (Heurling et al., 2019).
Acebes A. Brain mapping and synapse quantification in vivo: it's time to imaging. Front Neuroanat. 2017; 11:17. doi: 10.3389/fnana.2017.00017.
Cai Z, Li S, Matuskey D, Nabulsi N, Huang Y. PET imaging of synaptic density: a new tool for investigation of neuropsychiatric diseases. Neurosci Lett. 2019; 691: 44-50. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2018.07.038.
Finnema SJ, Nabulsi NB, Eid T, Detyniecki K, Lin S, Chen M-K, Dhaher R, Matuskey D, Baum E, Holden D, Spencer DD, Mercier J, Hannestad J, Huang Y, Carson RE. Imaging synaptic density in the living human brain. Sci Transl Med. 2016; 8: 348ra96. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaf6667.
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Prieto GA, Cotman CW. On the road towards the global analysis of human synapses. Neural Regen Res. 2017; 12(10): 1586-1589. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.217321.
Rabiner EA. Imaging synaptic density: a different look at neurological diseases. J Nucl Med. 2018; 59(3): 380-381. doi: 10.2967/jnumed.117.198317.
Updated at: 2020-12-11
Created at: 2017-08-07
Written by: Vesa Oikonen