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Dementia case study with questions and answers

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Dementia case study with questions and answers

Common dementia exam questions for medical finals, OSCEs and MRCP PACES

The case below illustrates the key features in the assessment of a patient with dementia or undiagnosed memory decline. It works through history, examination and investigations – click on the plus symbols to see the answers to each question

Part 1: Mavis

  • Mavis is an 84-year old lady, referred to you in the memory clinic for assessment of memory impairment. She attends in the company of her son and daughter-in-law.
  • On the pre-clinic questionnaire her son has reported a severe deterioration in all aspects of her cognition over the past 12 months.
  • The patient herself acknowledges that there have been memory problems, but feels it is just her short term memory that is an issue.

Question 1.

  • To begin the history, start broadly. Build rapport and establish both the patient’s view on memory impairment (if any) and the family’s (or other collateral history).
  • Patient’s (and collateral) view of memory decline
  • Biographical history
  • Objective view of memory decline (e.g. knowledge of current affairs)
  • Impact of memory decline on day-to-day living and hobbies
  • Social history, including safety and driving
  • General medical history (especially medications)
  • See below for details on these…

Question 2.

  • Is it for everything or are specific details missed out/glossed over?
  • Try to pin down specific details (e.g. names of people/places).
  • At what time in chronological order do things start to get hazy?

Question 3.

  • If under 12 years this will lead to additional point being awarded on some cognitive tests
  • Ask about long term memories, e.g. wedding day or different jobs
  • Then move on to more recent memories, e.g. last holiday

Question 4.

  • If your patient watches the news/read newspapers on a regular basis, ask them to recount the headlines from the past few days.
  • Be sure to look for specifics to prevent your patient masking memory deficiencies with broad statements. For example: “The government are incompetent, aren’t they?!” should be clarified by pinning down exactly why they are incompetent, for example: “Jeremy Hunt”.
  • If they like to read, can they recall plotlines from current books or items from magazines?
  • If they watch TV, can they recount recent plot lines from soaps, or formats of quiz shows?

Question 5.

  • Ask about hobbies and other daily activities, and whether or not these have declined recently.
  • If your patient no longer participates in a particular hobby, find out why: is it as a result of a physical impairment (e.g. arthritis making cooking difficult), or as the result of a loss of interest/ability to complete tasks (e.g. no longer able to complete crosswords/puzzles).
  • Once you have a good idea of the memory decline itself, begin to ask about other features. Including a social and general medical history.

Question 6.

  • Review their social history and current set-up, and also subjective assessments from both patient and family over whether or not the current arrangements are safe and sustainable as they are.
  • Previous and ongoing alcohol intake
  • Smoking history
  • Still driving (and if so, how safe that is considered to be from collateral history)
  • Who else is at home
  • Any package of care
  • Upstairs/downstairs living
  • Meal arrangements (and whether weight is being sustained).
  • Of all these issues, that of driving is perhaps one of the most important, as any ultimate diagnosis of dementia must be informed (by law) to both the DVLA and also the patient’s insurers. If you feel they are still safe to drive despite the diagnosis, you may be asked to provide a report to the DVLA to support this viewpoint.

Now perform a more generalised history, to include past medical history and – more importantly – a drug history.

Question 7.

  • Oxybutynin, commonly used in primary care for overactive bladder (anticholinergic side effects)
  • Also see how the medications are given (e.g. Dossett box)
  • Are lots of full packets found around the house?

Part 2: The History

On taking a history you have found:

  • Mavis was able to give a moderately detailed biographical history, but struggled with details extending as far back as the location of her wedding, and also her main jobs throughout her life.
  • After prompting from her family, she was able to supply more information, but it was not always entirely accurate.
  • Her main hobby was knitting, and it was noted that she had been able to successfully knit a bobble hat for her great-grand child as recently as last month, although it had taken her considerably longer to complete than it might have done a few years previously, and it was a comparatively basic design compared to what she has been able to create previously.
  • She has a few children living in the area, who would frequently pop in with shopping, but there had been times when they arrived to find that she was packed and in her coat, stating that she was “just getting ready to go home again”.
  • She had been helping occasionally with the school run, but then a couple of weekends ago she had called up one of her sons – just before she was due to drive over for Sunday lunch – and said that she could not remember how to drive to his house.
  • Ever since then, they had confiscated her keys to make sure she couldn’t drive. Although she liked to read the paper every day, she could not recall any recent major news events.  Before proceeding to examine her, you note that the GP referral letter has stated that her dementia screen investigations have been completed.

Question 8.

  • Raised WCC suggests infection as a cause of acute confusion
  • Uraemia and other electrolyte disturbances can cause a persistent confusion.
  • Again, to help rule out acute infection/inflammatory conditions
  • Liver failure can cause hyperammonaemia, which can cause a persistent confusion.
  • Hyper- or hypothyroidism can cause confusion.
  • B12 deficiency is an easily missed and reversible cause of dementia.
  • This looks for space occupying lesions/hydrocephalus which may cause confusion.
  • This can also help to determine the degree of any vascular component of an ultimately diagnosed dementia.

Part 3: Examination

  • With the exception of age-related involutional changes on the CT head (noted to have minimal white matter changes/small vessel disease), all the dementia screen bloods are reassuring.
  • You next decide to perform a physical examination of Mavis.

Question 9.

  • Important physical findings that are of particular relevance to dementia, are looking for other diseases that may have an effect on cognition.
  • To look for evidence of stroke – unlikely in this case given the CT head
  • Gait (shuffling) and limb movements (tremor, rigidity, bradykinesia)
  • Affect is also important here and may also point to underlying depression
  • Pay attention to vertical gaze palsy, as in the context of Parkinsonism this may represent a Parkinson plus condition (e.g. progressive supranuclear palsy).
  • It is also useful to look at observations including blood pressure (may be overmedicated and at risk of falls from syncope) and postural blood pressure (again, may indicate overmedication but is also associated with Parkinson plus syndromes e.g. MSA)

Part 4: Cognitive Testing

  • On examination she is alert and well, mobilising independently around the clinic waiting room area.  A neurological examination was normal throughout, and there were no other major pathologies found on a general examination.
  • You now proceed to cognitive testing:

Question 10.

  • Click here for details on the MOCA
  • Click here for details on the MMSE
  • Click here for details on the CLOX test

Part 5: Diagnosis

  • Mavis scores 14/30 on a MOCA, losing marks throughout multiple domains of cognition.

Question 11.

  • Given the progressive nature of symptoms described by the family, the impairment over multiple domains on cognitive testing, and the impact on daily living that this is starting to have (e.g. packing and getting ready to leave her own home, mistakenly believing she is somewhere else), coupled with the results from her dementia screen, this is most likely an Alzheimer’s type dementia .

Question 12.

  • You should proceed by establishing whether or not Mavis would like to be given a formal diagnosis, and if so, explain the above.
  • You should review her lying and standing BP and ECG, and – if these give no contraindications – suggest a trial of treatment with an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, such as donepezil.
  • It is important to note the potential side effects – the most distressing of which are related to issues of incontinence.
  • If available, put her in touch with support groups
  • Given the history of forgetting routes before even getting into the care, advise the patient that she should stop driving and that they need to inform the DVLA of this (for now, we will skip over the depravation of liberty issues that the premature confiscation of keys performed by the family has caused…)
  • The GP should be informed of the new diagnosis, and if there are concerns over safety, review by social services for potential support should be arranged.
  • Follow-up is advisable over the next few months to see whether the trial of treatment has been beneficial, and whether side effects have been well-tolerated.

Now click here to learn more about dementia

Perfect revision for medical students, finals, osces and mrcp paces, …or  click here to learn about the diagnosis and management of delirium.

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Psychiatry Online

  • Spring 2024 | VOL. 36, NO. 2 CURRENT ISSUE pp.A4-174
  • Winter 2024 | VOL. 36, NO. 1 pp.A5-81

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Case Study 1: A 55-Year-Old Woman With Progressive Cognitive, Perceptual, and Motor Impairments

  • Scott M. McGinnis , M.D. ,
  • Andrew M. Stern , M.D., Ph.D. ,
  • Jared K. Woods , M.D., Ph.D. ,
  • Matthew Torre , M.D. ,
  • Mel B. Feany , M.D., Ph.D. ,
  • Michael B. Miller , M.D., Ph.D. ,
  • David A. Silbersweig , M.D. ,
  • Seth A. Gale , M.D. ,
  • Kirk R. Daffner , M.D.

Search for more papers by this author

CASE PRESENTATION

A 55-year-old right-handed woman presented with a 3-year history of cognitive changes. Early symptoms included mild forgetfulness—for example, forgetting where she left her purse or failing to remember to retrieve a take-out order her family placed—and word-finding difficulties. Problems with depth perception affected her ability to back her car out of the driveway. When descending stairs, she had to locate her feet visually in order to place them correctly, such that when she carried her dog and her view was obscured, she had difficulty managing this activity. She struggled to execute relatively simple tasks, such as inserting a plug into an outlet. She lost the ability to type on a keyboard, despite being able to move her fingers quickly. Her symptoms worsened progressively for 3 years, over which time she developed a sad mood and anxiety. She was laid off from work as a nurse administrator. Her family members assumed responsibility for paying her bills, and she ceased driving.

Her past medical history included high blood pressure, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis with thyroid peroxidase antibodies, remote history of migraine, and anxiety. Medications included mirtazapine, levothyroxine, calcium, and vitamin D. She had no history of smoking, drinking alcohol, or recreational drug use. There was no known family history of neurologic diseases.

What Are Diagnostic Considerations Based on the History? How Might a Clinical Examination Help to Narrow the Differential Diagnosis?

Insidious onset and gradual progression of cognitive symptoms over the course of several years raise concern for a neurodegenerative disorder. It is helpful to consider whether or not the presentation fits with a recognized neurodegenerative clinical syndrome, a judgment based principally on familiarity with syndromes and pattern recognition. Onset of symptoms before age 65 should prompt consideration of syndromes in the spectrum of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and atypical (nonamnesic) presentations of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) ( 1 , 2 ). This patient’s symptoms reflect relatively prominent early dysfunction in visual-spatial processing and body schema, as might be observed in posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), although the history also includes mention of forgetfulness and word-retrieval difficulties. A chief goal of the cognitive examination would be to survey major domains of cognition—attention, executive functioning, memory, language, visual-spatial functioning, and higher somatosensory and motor functioning—to determine whether any domains stand out as more prominently affected. In addition to screening for evidence of focal signs, a neurological examination in this context should assess for evidence of parkinsonism or motor neuron disease, which can coexist with cognitive changes in neurodegenerative presentations.

The patient’s young age and history of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis might also prompt consideration of Hashimoto’s encephalopathy (HE; also known as steroid-responsive encephalopathy), associated with autoimmune thyroiditis. This syndrome is most likely attributable to an autoimmune or inflammatory process affecting the central nervous system. The time course of HE is usually more subacute and rapidly progressive or relapsing-remitting, as opposed to the gradual progression over months to years observed in the present case ( 3 ).

The patient’s mental status examination included the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), a brief global screen of cognition ( 4 ), on which she scored 12/30. There was evidence of dysfunction across multiple cognitive domains ( Figure 1 ). She was fully oriented to location, day, month, year, and exact date. When asked to describe a complex scene from a picture in a magazine, she had great difficulty doing so, focusing on different details but having trouble directing her saccades to pertinent visual information. She likewise had problems directing her gaze to specified objects in the room and problems reaching in front of her to touch target objects in either visual field. In terms of other symptoms of higher order motor and somatosensory functioning, she had difficulty demonstrating previously learned actions—for example, positioning her hand correctly to pantomime holding a brush and combing her hair. She was confused about which side of her body was the left and which was the right. She had difficulty with mental calculations, even relatively simple ones such as “18 minus 12.” In addition, she had problems writing a sentence in terms of both grammar and the appropriate spacing of words and letters on the page.

FIGURE 1. Selected elements of a 55-year-old patient’s cognitive examination at presentation a

a BNT-15=Boston Naming Test (15-Item); MoCA=Montreal Cognitive Assessment.

On elementary neurologic examination she had symmetrically brisk reflexes, with spread. She walked steadily with a narrow base, but when asked to pass through a doorway she had difficulty finding her way through it and bumped into the door jamb. Her elemental neurological examination was otherwise normal, including but not limited to brisk, full-amplitude vertical eye movements, normal visual fields, no evidence of peripheral neuropathy, and no parkinsonian signs such as slowness of movement, tremor, or rigidity.

How Does the Examination Contribute to Our Understanding of Diagnostic Considerations? What Additional Tests or Studies Are Indicated?

The most prominent early symptoms and signs localize predominantly to the parietal association cortex: The patient has impairments in visual construction, ability to judge spatial relationships, ability to synthesize component parts of a visual scene into a coherent whole (simultanagnosia or asimultagnosia), impaired visually guided reaching for objects (optic ataxia), and most likely impaired ability to shift her visual attention so as to direct saccades to targets in her field of view (oculomotor apraxia or ocular apraxia). The last three signs constitute Bálint syndrome, which localizes to disruption of dorsal visual networks (i.e., dorsal stream) with key nodes in the posterior parietal and prefrontal cortices bilaterally ( 5 ). She has additional salient symptoms and signs suggesting left inferior parietal dysfunction, including ideomotor limb apraxia and elements of Gerstmann syndrome, which comprises dysgraphia, acalculia, left-right confusion, and finger agnosia ( 6 ). Information was not included about whether she was explicitly examined for finger agnosia, but elements of her presentation suggested a more generalized disruption of body schema (i.e., her representation of the position and configuration of her body in space). Her less prominent impairment in lexical-semantic retrieval evidenced by impaired confrontation naming and category fluency likely localizes to the language network in the left hemisphere. Her impairments in attention and executive functions have less localizing value but would plausibly arise in the context of frontoparietal network dysfunction. At this point, it is unclear whether her impairment in episodic memory mostly reflects encoding and activation versus a rapid rate of forgetting (storage), as occurs in temporolimbic amnesia. Regardless, it does not appear to be the most salient feature of her presentation.

This localization, presenting with insidious onset and gradual progression, is characteristic of a PCA syndrome. If we apply consensus clinical diagnostic criteria proposed by a working group of experts, we find that our patient has many of the representative features of early disturbance of visual functions plus or minus other cognitive functions mediated by the posterior cerebral cortex ( Table 1 ) ( 7 ). Some functions such as limb apraxia also occur in corticobasal syndrome (CBS), a clinical syndrome defined initially in association with corticobasal degeneration (CBD) neuropathology, a 4-repeat tauopathy characterized by achromatic ballooned neurons, neuropil threads, and astrocytic plaques. However, our patient lacks other suggestive features of CBS, including extrapyramidal motor dysfunction (e.g., limb rigidity, bradykinesia, dystonia), myoclonus, and alien limb phenomenon ( Table 1 ) ( 8 ).

TABLE 1. Clinical features and neuropathological associations of posterior cortical atrophy and corticobasal syndrome

FeaturePosterior cortical atrophyCorticobasal syndrome
Cognitive and motor featuresVisual-perceptual: space perception deficit, simultanagnosia, object perception deficit, environmental agnosia, alexia, apperceptive prosopagnosia, and homonymous visual field defectMotor: limb rigidity or akinesia, limb dystonia, and limb myoclonus
Visual-motor: constructional dyspraxia, oculomotor apraxia, optic ataxia, and dressing apraxia
Other: left/right disorientation, acalculia, limb apraxia, agraphia, and finger agnosiaHigher cortical features: limb or orobuccal apraxia, cortical sensory deficit, and alien limb phenomena
Imaging features (MRI, FDG-PET, SPECT)Predominant occipito-parietal or occipito-temporal atrophy, and hypometabolism or hypoperfusionAsymmetric perirolandic, posterior frontal, parietal atrophy, and hypometabolism or hypoperfusion
Neuropathological associationsAD>CBD, LBD, TDP, JCDCBD>PSP, AD, TDP

a Consensus diagnostic criteria for posterior cortical atrophy per Crutch et al. ( 7 ) require at least three cognitive features and relative sparing of anterograde memory, speech-nonvisual language functions, executive functions, behavior, and personality. Diagnostic criteria for probable corticobasal syndrome per Armstrong et al. ( 8 ) require asymmetric presentation of at least two motor features and at least two higher cortical features. AD=Alzheimer’s disease; CBD=corticobasal degeneration; FDG-PET=[ 18 ]F-fluorodexoxyglucose positron emission tomography; JCD=Jakob-Creutzfeldt disease; LBD=Lewy body disease; PSP=progressive supranuclear palsy; SPECT=single-photon emission computed tomography; TDP=TDP–43 proteinopathy.

TABLE 1. Clinical features and neuropathological associations of posterior cortical atrophy and corticobasal syndrome a

In addition to a standard laboratory work-up for cognitive impairment, it is important to determine whether imaging of the brain provides evidence of neurodegeneration in a topographical distribution consistent with the clinical presentation. A first step in most cases would be to obtain an MRI of the brain that includes a high-resolution T 1 -weighted MRI sequence to assess potential atrophy, a T 2 /fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (FLAIR) sequence to assess the burden of vascular disease and rule out less likely etiological considerations (e.g., infection, autoimmune-inflammatory, neoplasm), a diffusion-weighted sequence to rule out subacute infarcts and prion disease (more pertinent to subacute or rapidly progressive cases), and a T 2 *-gradient echo or susceptibility weighted sequence to examine for microhemorrhages and superficial siderosis.

A lumbar puncture would serve two purposes. First, it would allow for the assessment of inflammation that might occur in HE, as approximately 80% of cases have some abnormality of CSF (i.e., elevated protein, lymphocytic pleiocytosis, or oligoclonal bands) ( 9 ). Second, in selected circumstances—particularly in cases with atypical nonamnesic clinical presentations or early-onset dementia in which AD is in the neuropathological differential diagnosis—we frequently pursue AD biomarkers of molecular neuropathology ( 10 , 11 ). This is most frequently accomplished with CSF analysis of amyloid-β-42, total tau, and phosphorylated tau levels. Amyloid positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, and most recently tau PET imaging, represent additional options that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for clinical use. However, insurance often does not cover amyloid PET and currently does not reimburse tau PET imaging. [ 18 ]-F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) PET and perfusion single-photon emission computed tomography imaging may provide indirect evidence for AD neuropathology via a pattern of hypometabolism or hypoperfusion involving the temporoparietal and posterior cingulate regions, though without molecular specificity. Pertinent to this case, a syndromic diagnosis of PCA is most commonly associated with underlying AD neuropathology—that is, plaques containing amyloid-β and neurofibrillary tangles containing tau ( 12 – 15 ).

The patient underwent MRI, demonstrating a minimal burden of T 2 /FLAIR hyperintensities and some degree of bilateral parietal volume loss with a left greater than right predominance ( Figure 2A ). There was relatively minimal medial temporal volume loss. Her basic laboratory work-up, including thyroid function, vitamin B 12 level, and treponemal antibody, was normal. She underwent a lumbar puncture; CSF studies revealed normal cell counts, protein, and glucose levels and low amyloid-β-42 levels at 165.9 pg/ml [>500 pg/ml] and elevated total and phosphorylated tau levels at 1,553 pg/ml [<350 pg/ml] and 200.4 pg/ml [<61 pg/ml], respectively.

FIGURE 2. MRI brain scan of the patient at presentation and 4 years later a

a Arrows denote regions of significant atrophy.

Considering This Additional Data, What Would Be an Appropriate Diagnostic Formulation?

For optimal clarity, we aim to provide a three-tiered approach to diagnosis comprising neurodegenerative clinical syndrome (e.g., primary amnesic, mixed amnesic and dysexecutive, primary progressive aphasia), level of severity (i.e., mild cognitive impairment; mild, moderate or severe dementia), and predicted underlying neuropathology (e.g., AD, Lewy body disease [LBD], frontotemporal lobar degeneration) ( 16 ). This approach avoids problematic conflations that cause confusion, for example when people equate AD with memory loss or dementia, whereas AD most strictly describes the neuropathology of plaques and tangles, regardless of the patient’s clinical symptoms and severity. This framework is important because there is never an exclusive, one-to-one correspondence between syndromic and neuropathological diagnosis. Syndromes arise from neurodegeneration that starts focally and progresses along the anatomical lines of large-scale brain networks that can be defined on the basis of both structural and functional connectivity, a concept detailed in the network degeneration hypothesis ( 17 ). It is important to note that neuropathologies defined on the basis of specific misfolded protein inclusions can target more than one large-scale network, and any given large-scale network can degenerate in association with more than one neuropathology.

The MRI results in this case support a syndromic diagnosis of PCA, with a posteriorly predominant pattern of atrophy. Given the patient’s loss of independent functioning in instrumental activities of daily living (ADLs), including driving and managing her finances, the patient would be characterized as having a dementia (also known as major neurocognitive disorder). The preservation of basic ADLs would suggest that the dementia was of mild severity. The CSF results provide supportive evidence for AD amyloid plaque and tau neurofibrillary tangle (NFT) neuropathology over other pathologies potentially associated with PCA syndrome (i.e., CBD, LBD, TDP-43 proteinopathy, and Jakob-Creutzfeldt disease) ( 13 , 14 ). The patient’s formulation would thus be best summarized as PCA at a level of mild dementia, likely associated with underlying AD neuropathology.

The patient’s symptoms progressed. One year after initial presentation, she had difficulty locating the buttons on her clothing or the food on her plate. Her word-finding difficulties worsened. Others observed stiffness of her right arm, a new symptom that was not present initially. She also had decreased ability using her right hand to hold everyday objects such as a comb, a brush, or a pen. On exam, she was noted to have rigidity of her right arm, impaired dexterity with her right hand for fine motor tasks, and a symmetrical tremor of the arms, apparent when holding objects or reaching. Her right hand would also intermittently assume a flexed, dystonic posture and would sometime move in complex ways without her having a sense of volitional control.

Four to 5 years after initial presentation, her functional status declined to the point where she was unable to feed, bathe, or dress herself. She was unable to follow simple instructions. She developed neuropsychiatric symptoms, including compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and apathy. Her right-sided motor symptoms progressed; she spent much of the time with her right arm flexed in abnormal postures or moving abnormally. She developed myoclonus of both arms. Her speech became slurred and monosyllabic. Her gait became less steady. She underwent a second MRI of the brain, demonstrating progressive bilateral atrophy involving the frontal and occipital lobes in addition to the parietal lobes and with more left > right asymmetry than was previously apparent ( Figure 2B ). Over time, she exhibited increasing weight loss. She was enrolled in hospice and ultimately passed away 8 years from the onset of symptoms.

Does Information About the Longitudinal Course of Her Illness Alter the Formulation About the Most Likely Underlying Neuropathological Process?

This patient developed clinical features characteristic of corticobasal syndrome over the longitudinal course of her disease. With time, it became apparent that she had lost volitional control over her right arm (characteristic of an alien limb phenomenon), and she developed signs more suggestive of basal ganglionic involvement (i.e., limb rigidity and possible dystonia). This presentation highlights the frequent overlap between neurodegenerative clinical syndromes; any given person may have elements of more than one syndrome, especially later in the course of a disease. In many instances, symptomatic features that are less prominent at presentation but evolve and progress can provide clues regarding the underlying neuropathological diagnosis. For example, a patient with primary progressive apraxia of speech or nonfluent-agrammatic primary progressive aphasia could develop the motor features of a progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) clinical syndrome (e.g., supranuclear gaze impairment, axial rigidity, postural instability), which would suggest underlying PSP neuropathology (4-repeat tauopathy characterized by globose neurofibrillary tangles, tufted astrocytes, and oligodendroglial coiled bodies).

If CSF biomarker data were not suggestive of AD, the secondary elements of CBS would substantially increase the likelihood of underlying CBD neuropathology presenting with a PCA syndrome and evolving to a mixed PCA-CBS. But the CSF amyloid and tau levels are unambiguously suggestive of AD (i.e., very low amyloid-β-42 and very high p-tau levels), the neuropathology of which accounts for not only a vast majority of PCA presentations but also roughly a quarter of cases presenting with CBS ( 18 , 19 ). Thus, underlying AD appears most likely.

NEUROPATHOLOGY

On gross examination, the brain weighed 1,150 g, slightly less than the lower end of normal at 1,200 g. External examination demonstrated mild cortical atrophy with widening of the sulci, relatively symmetrical and uniform throughout the brain ( Figure 3A ). There was no evidence of atrophy of the brainstem or cerebellum. On cut sections, the hippocampus was mildly atrophic. The substantia nigra in the midbrain was intact, showing appropriate dark pigmentation as would be seen in a relatively normal brain. The remainder of the gross examination was unremarkable.

FIGURE 3. Mild cortical atrophy with posterior predominance and neurofibrillary tangles, granulovacuolar degeneration, and a Hirano body a

a Panel A shows the gross view of the brain, demonstrating mild cortical atrophy with posterior predominance (arrow). Panel B shows the hematoxylin and eosin of the hippocampus at high power, demonstrating neurofibrillary tangles, granulovacuolar degeneration, and a Hirano body.

Histological examination confirmed that the neurons in the substantia nigra were appropriately pigmented, with occasional extraneuronal neuromelanin and moderate neuronal loss. In the nucleus basalis of Meynert, NFTs were apparent on hematoxylin and eosin staining as dense fibrillar eosinophilic structures in the neuronal cytoplasm, confirmed by tau immunohistochemistry (IHC; Figure 4 ). Low-power examination of the hippocampus revealed neuronal loss in the subiculum and in Ammon’s horn, most pronounced in the cornu ammonis 1 (CA1) subfield, with a relatively intact neuronal population in the dentate gyrus. Higher power examination with hematoxylin and eosin demonstrated numerous NFTs, neurons exhibiting granulovacuolar degeneration, and Hirano bodies ( Figure 3B ). Tau IHC confirmed numerous NFTs in the CA1 region and the subiculum. Amyloid-β IHC demonstrated occasional amyloid plaques in this region, less abundant than tau pathology. An α-synuclein stain revealed scattered Lewy bodies in the hippocampus and in the amygdala.

FIGURE 4. Tau immunohistochemistry demonstrating neurofibrillary tangles (staining brown) in the nucleus basalis of Meynert, in the hippocampus, and in the cerebral cortex of the frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes

In the neocortex, tau IHC highlighted the extent of the NFTs, which were very prominent in all of the lobes from which sections were taken: frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital. Numerous plaques on amyloid-β stain were likewise present in all cortical regions examined. The tau pathology was confined to the gray matter, sparing white matter. There were no ballooned neurons and no astrocytic plaques—two findings one would expect to see in CBD ( Table 2 ).

TABLE 2. Neuropathological features of this case compared with a case of corticobasal degeneration

FeatureCase of PCA/CBS due to ADExemplar case of CBD
Macroscopic findingsCortical atrophy: symmetric, mildCortical atrophy: often asymmetric, predominantly affecting perirolandic cortex
Substantia nigra: appropriately pigmentedSubstantia nigra: severely depigmented
Microscopic findingsTau neurofibrillary tangles and beta-amyloid plaquesPrimary tauopathy
No tau pathology in white matterTau pathology involves white matter
Hirano bodies, granulovacuolar degenerationBallooned neurons, astrocytic plaques, and oligodendroglial coiled bodies
(Lewy bodies, limbic)

a AD=Alzheimer’s disease; CBD=corticobasal degeneration; CBS=corticobasal syndrome; PCA=posterior cortical atrophy.

TABLE 2. Neuropathological features of this case compared with a case of corticobasal degeneration a

The case was designated by the neuropathology division as Alzheimer’s-type pathology, Braak stage V–VI (of VI), due to the widespread neocortical tau pathology, with LBD primarily in the limbic areas.

Our patient had AD neuropathology presenting atypically with a young age at onset (52 years old) and a predominantly visual-spatial and corticobasal syndrome as opposed to prominent amnesia. Syndromic diversity is a well-recognized phenomenon in AD. Nonamnesic presentations include not only PCA and CBS but also the logopenic variant of primary progressive aphasia and a behavioral-dysexecutive syndrome ( 20 ). Converging lines of evidence link the topographical distribution of NFTs with syndromic presentations and the pattern of hypometabolism and cortical atrophy. Neuropathological case reports and case series suggest that atypical AD syndromes arise in the setting of higher than normal densities of NFTs in networks subserving the functions compromised, including visual association areas in PCA-AD ( 21 ), the language network in PPA-AD ( 22 ), and frontal regions in behavioral-dysexecutive AD ( 23 ). In a large sample of close to 900 cases of pathologically diagnosed AD employing quantitative assessment of NFT density and distribution in selected neocortical and hippocampal regions, 25% of cases did not conform to a typical distribution of NFTs characterized in the Braak staging scheme ( 24 ). A subset of cases classified as hippocampal sparing with higher density of NFTs in the neocortex and lower density of NFTs in the hippocampus had a younger mean age at onset, higher frequency of atypical (nonamnesic) presentations, and more rapid rate of longitudinal decline than subsets defined as typical or limbic-predominant.

Tau PET, which detects the spatial distribution of fibrillary tau present in NFTs, has corroborated postmortem work in demonstrating distinct patterns of tracer uptake in different subtypes of AD defined by clinical symptoms and topographical distributions of atrophy ( 25 – 28 ). Amyloid PET, which detects the spatial distribution of fibrillar amyloid- β found in amyloid plaques, does not distinguish between typical and atypical AD ( 29 , 30 ). In a longitudinal study of 32 patients at early symptomatic stages of AD, the baseline topography of tau PET signal predicted subsequent atrophy on MRI at the single patient level, independent of baseline cortical thickness ( 31 ). This correlation was strongest in early-onset AD patients, who also tended to have higher tau signal and more rapid progression of atrophy than late-onset AD patients.

Differential vulnerability of selected large-scale brain networks in AD and in neurodegenerative disease more broadly remains poorly understood. There is evidence to support multiple mechanisms that are not mutually exclusive, including metabolic stress to key network nodes, trophic failure, transneuronal spread of pathological proteins (i.e., prion-like mechanisms), and shared vulnerability within network regions based on genetic or developmental factors ( 32 ). In the case of AD, cortical hub regions with high intrinsic functional connectivity to other regions across the brain appear to have high metabolic rates across the lifespan and to be foci of convergence of amyloid-β and tau accumulation ( 33 , 34 ). Tau NFT pathology appears to spread temporally along connected networks within the brain ( 35 ). Patients with primary progressive aphasia are more likely to have a personal or family history of developmental language-based learning disability ( 36 ), and patients with PCA are more likely to have a personal history of mathematical or visuospatial learning disability ( 37 ).

This case highlights the symptomatic heterogeneity in AD and the value of a three-tiered approach to diagnostic formulation in neurodegenerative presentations. It is important to remember that not all AD presents with amnesia and that early-onset AD tends to be more atypical and to progress more rapidly than late-onset AD. Multiple lines of evidence support a relationship between the burden and topographical distribution of tau NFT neuropathology and clinical symptomatology in AD, instantiating network-based neurodegeneration via mechanisms under ongoing investigation.

The authors report no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Supported by NIH grants K08 AG065502 (to Dr. Miller) and T32 HL007627 (to Dr. Miller).

The authors have confirmed that details of the case have been disguised to protect patient privacy.

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Case Report of a 63-Year-Old Patient With Alzheimer Disease and a Novel Presenilin 2 Mutation

Wells, Jennie L. BSc, MSc, MD, FACP, FRCPC, CCRP *,† ; Pasternak, Stephen H. MD, PhD, FRCPC †,‡,§

* Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University

† St. Joseph’s Health Care London—Parkwood Institute

‡ Molecular Medicine Research Group, Robarts Research Institute

§ Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Reprints: Jennie L. Wells, BSc, MSc, MD, FACP, FRCPC, CCRP, Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine, St. Joseph’s Health Care London—Parkwood Institute, Room A2-129, P.O. Box 5777 STN B, London, ON, Canada N6A 4V2 (e-mail: [email protected] ).

This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CCBY), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Early onset Alzheimer disease (EOAD) is a neurodegenerative dementing disorder that is relatively rare (<1% of all Alzheimer cases). Various genetic mutations of the presenilin 1 ( PSEN1 ) and presenilin 2 ( PSEN2 ) as well as the amyloid precursor protein (APP) gene have been implicated. Mutations of PSEN1 and PSEN2 alter γ-secretase enzyme that cleaves APP resulting in increase in the relative amount of the more amyloidogenic Aβ42 that is produced. 1

PSEN2 has been less studied than PSEN1 and fewer mutations are known. Here, we report a case of a 63-year-old woman (at the time of death) with the clinical history consistent with Alzheimer D, an autopsy with brain histopathology supporting Alzheimer disease (AD), congophylic angiopathy, and Lewy Body pathology, and whose medical genetic testing reveals a novel PSEN2 mutation of adenosine replacing cytosine at codon 222, nucleotide position 665 (lysine replacing threonine) that has never been previously reported. This suggests that genetic testing may be useful in older patients with mixed pathology.

CASE REPORT

The patient was referred to our specialty memory clinic at the age of 58 with a 2-year history of repetitiveness, memory loss, and executive function loss. Magnetic resonance imaging scan at age 58 revealed mild generalized cortical atrophy. She is white with 2 years of postsecondary education. Retirement at age 48 from employment as a manager in telecommunications company was because family finances allowed and not because of cognitive challenges with work. Progressive cognitive decline was evident by the report of deficits in instrumental activities of daily living performance over the past 9 months before her initial consultation in the memory clinic. Word finding and literacy skills were noted to have deteriorated in the preceding 6 months according to her spouse. Examples of functional losses were being slower in processing and carrying out instructions, not knowing how to turn off the stove, and becoming unable to assist in boat docking which was the couple’s pastime. She stopped driving a motor vehicle about 6 months before her memory clinic consultation. Her past medical history was relevant for hypercholesterolemia and vitamin D deficiency. She had no surgical history. She had no history of smoking, alcohol, or other drug misuse. Laboratory screening was normal. There was no first-degree family history of presenile dementia. Neurocognitive assessment at the first clinic visit revealed a Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) score of 14/30; poor verbal fluency (patient was able to produce only 5 animal names and 1 F-word in 1 min) as well as poor visuospatial and executive skills ( Fig. 1 ). She had fluent speech without semantic deficits. Her neurological examination was pertinent for normal muscle tone and power, mild ideomotor apraxia on performing commands for motor tasks with no suggestion of cerebellar dysfunction, normal gait, no frontal release signs. Her speech was fluent with obvious word finding difficulties but with no phonemic or semantic paraphrasic errors. Her general physical examination was unremarkable without evidence of presenile cataracts. She had normal hearing. There was no evidence of depression or psychotic symptoms.

F1

At the time of the initial assessment, her mother was deceased at age 79 after a hip fracture with a history long-term smoking and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Her family believes that there is possible German and Danish descent on her father’s side. Her father was alive and well at age 80 at the time of her presentation with a history coronary artery disease. He is still alive and well with no functional or cognitive concerns at age 87 at the time of writing this report. Her paternal grandfather died at approximately age 33 of appendicitis with her paternal grandmother living with mild memory loss but without known dementia or motor symptoms until age 76, dying after complications of abdominal surgery. Her paternal uncle was diagnosed with Parkinson disease in his 40s and died at age 58. Her maternal grandmother was reported to be functionally intact, but mildly forgetful at the time of her death at age 89. The maternal grandfather had multiple myocardial infarctions and died of congestive heart failure at age 75. She was the eldest of 4 siblings (ages 44 to 56 at the time of presentation); none had cognitive problems. She had no children.

Because of her young age and clinical presentation with no personality changes, language or motor change, nor fluctuations, EOAD was the most likely clinical diagnosis. As visuospatial challenges were marked at her first visit and poor depth perception developing over time, posterior cortical variant of AD was also on the differential as was atypical presentation of frontotemporal dementias. Without fluctuations, Parkinsonism, falls, hallucinations, or altered attention, Lewy Body dementia was deemed unlikely. After treatment with a cholinesterase inhibitor, her MMSE improved to 18/30, tested 15 months later with stability in function. Verbal fluency improved marginally with 7 animals and 3 F-words. After an additional 18 months, function and cognition declined (MMSE=13/30) so memantine was added. The stabilizing response to the cholinesterase inhibitor added some degree of confidence to the EOAD diagnosis. In the subsequent 4 years, she continued to decline in cognition and function such that admission to a care facility was required with associated total dependence for basic activities of daily living. Noted by family before transfer to the long-term care facility were episodic possible hallucinations. It was challenging to know if what was described was misinterpretation of objects in view or a true hallucination. During this time, she developed muscle rigidity, motor apraxias, worsening perceptual, and language skills and became dependent for all activities of daily livings. At the fourth year of treatment, occasional myoclonus was noted. She was a 1 person assist for walking because of increased risk of falls. After 1 year in the care home, she was admitted to the acute care hospital in respiratory distress. CT brain imaging during that admission revealed marked generalized global cortical atrophy and marked hippocampal atrophy ( Fig. 2 ). She died at age 63 of pneumonia. An autopsy was performed confirming the cause of death and her diagnosis of AD, showing numerous plaques and tangles with congophilic amyloid angiopathy. In addition, there was prominent Lewy Body pathology noted in the amygdala.

F2

Three years before her death informed consent was obtained from the patient and family to perform medical genetic testing for EOAD. The standard panel offered by the laboratory was selected and included PSEN1 , PSEN2 , APP, and apoE analysis. Tests related to genes related to frontotemporal dementia were not requested based on clinical presentation and clinical judgement. This was carried out with blood samples and not cerebrospinal fluid because of patient, family, and health provider preference. The results revealed a novel PSEN2 mutation with an adenosine replacing cytosine at nucleotide position 665, codon 222 [amino acid substation of lysine for threonine at position 221 (L221T)]. This PSEN2 variant was noted to be novel to the laboratory’s database, noting that models predicted that this variant is likely pathogenic. The other notable potentially significant genetic finding is the apoliprotein E genotype was Є 3/4 .

β-amyloid (Aβ) is a 38 to 43 amino acid peptide that aggregates in AD forming toxic soluble oligomers and insoluble amyloid fibrils which form plaques. Aβ is produced by the cleavage of the APP first by an α-secretase, which produces a 99 amino acid C-terminal fragment of APP, and then at a variable “gamma” position by the γ-secretase which releases the Aβ peptide itself. It is this second γ-cleavage which determines the length and therefore the pathogenicity of the Aβ peptides, with 42 amino acid form of Aβ having a high propensity to aggregate and being more toxic.

The γ-secretase is composed of at least 4 proteins, mAph1, PEN2, nicastrin, and presenilin . Of these proteins, presenilin has 2 distinct isoforms ( PSEN1 and PSEN2 ), which contain the catalytic site responsible for the γ-cleavage. PSEN mutants are the most common genetic cause of AD with 247 mutations described in PSEN1 and 48 mutations described in PSEN2 (Alzgene database; www.alzforum.org/mutations ). PSEN2 mutations are reported to be associated with AD of both early onset and variable age onset as well as with other neurodegenerative disorders such as Lewy Body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson dementia, and posterior cortical atrophy. 2–4 In addition, PSEN2 has associations with breast cancer and dilated cardiomyopathy. 3

PSEN2 mutants are believed to alter the γ-secretase cleavage of APP increasing the relative amount of the more toxic Aβ42. The mean age of onset in PSEN2 mutations, is 55.3 years but the range of onset is surprisingly wide, spanning 39 to 83 years. Over 52% of cases are over 60 years. All cases have extensive amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, and many have extensive alpha-synuclein pathology as well. 5

In considering the novelty of this reported PSEN2 mutation, a literature search of Medline, the Alzgene genetic database of PSEN2 and the Alzheimer Disease and Frontotemporal Dementia Mutation Databases (AD&FTMD) were completed ( www.molgen.vib-ua.be/ADMutations ). The mutation presented here (L221T) has never been described before.

Although this mutation has not been described, we believe that it is highly likely to be pathogenic. This mutation is not conservative, as it replaces a lysine residue which is positively charged with threonine which is an uncharged polar, hydrophilic amino acid. The mutation itself occurs in a small cytoplasmic loop between transmembrane domain 4 and 5, which is conserved in the PSEN1 gene, and in PSEN2 is highly conserved across vertebrates, including birds and zebrafish all the way to Caenorhabditis elegans , but differs in Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) ( Fig. 3 ). We examined this mutation using several computer algorithms which examine the likelihood that a mutation will not be tolerated. Both SIFT ( http://sift.bii.a-star.edu.sg ) and PolyPhen-2.2.2 (HumVar) ( www.bork.embl-heidelberg.de/PolyPhen ) predicts that this variant is pathogenic. Interestingly, it is noted that PSEN1 mutations after amino acid 200 develop amyloid angiopathy. 5,7

F3

This patient also had an additional risk factor for AD, being a heterozygote for the apoЄ4 allele. Among other mechanisms, its presence reduces clearance of Aβ42 from the brain and increases glial activation. 8 Although the apoЄ4 allele is known to lower the age of onset of dementia in late onset AD, it has not been clearly shown to influence age of onset of EOAD in a limited case series. 9 It should be noted that heterozygote state may have contributed to an acceleration of her course given the known metabolism of apoЄ4 and its association with accelerated cerebral amyloid and known reduction in age of onset. 10

Given that there is no definite family history of autosomal dominant early onset dementia, it is likely that her PSEN2 mutation was a new random event. With the unusually wide age of onset it is conceivable that one of her parents could still harbor this PSEN2 mutation. The patient’s father, however, is currently 87 and living independently at the time of writing this manuscript, making him highly unlikely to be an EOAD carrier. Nonpaternity is an alternate explanation for the lack of known first-degree relative with EOAD; however, this is deemed unlikely by the family member who provided the supplemental history. Her mother died at age 79, so she could conceivably carry our mutation but we do not have access to this genetic material. Without extensive testing of many family members it would be impossible to speculate about autosomal recessive form of gene expression. In addition, the genetic testing requested was limited to presenilins , APP, and apoE mutations. Danish heritage may add Familial Danish dementia as a remote consideration; however, Familial Danish dementia has a much different clinical presentation with long tract signs, cerebellar dysfunction, onset in the fourth decade as well as hearing loss and cataracts at a young age. 11 This disease has high autosomal dominant penetration which also makes it less likely in the patient’s context. This specific gene (chromosome 13) was not tested. The autopsy findings do not support this possibility. There are reports of Familial AD pedigrees in Germany, including a Volga pedigree with PSEN141I mutation in exon 5, but this is clearly separate from our mutation which is in exon 7. Our mutation was also not observed in a recent cohort of 23 German individuals with EOAD which underwent whole genome sequencing, but did find 2 carriers of the Volga pedigree. It is also possible that both the PSEN2 mutation and the ApoE genotype contributed to her disease and early onset presentation. This case illustrates the multiple pathology types which occur in individuals bearing PSEN2 mutations, and highlights the later ages in which patients can present with PSEN2 mutations. 12

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The authors acknowledge Gwyneth Duhn, RN, BNSc, MSc, for her support of this paper.

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