BACKGROUND: Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder with a high prevalence among the elderly and a huge personal and societal impact. Recent epidemiological studies have indicated that the incidence and age of onset of sporadic AD can be modified by lifestyle factors such as education, exercise, and (early) stress exposure. Early life adversity is known to promote cognitive decline at a later age and to accelerate aging, which are both primary risk factors for AD. In rodent models, exposure to 'negative' or 'positive' early life experiences was recently found to modulate various measures of AD neuropathology, such as amyloid-beta levels and cognition at later ages. Although there is emerging interest in understanding whether experiences during early postnatal life also modulate AD risk in humans, the mechanisms and possible substrates underlying these long-lasting effects remain elusive.
METHODS: We review literature and discuss the role of early life experiences in determining later age and AD-related processes from a brain and cognitive 'reserve' perspective. We focus on rodent studies and the identification of possible early determinants of later AD vulnerability or resilience in relation to early life adversity/enrichment.
RESULTS: Potential substrates and mediators of early life experiences that may influence the development of AD pathology and cognitive decline are: programming of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, priming of the neuroinflammatory response, dendritic and synaptic complexity and function, overall brain plasticity, and proteins such as early growth response protein 1 (EGR1), activity regulated cytoskeleton-associated protein (Arc), and repressor element-1 silencing transcription factor (REST).
CONCLUSIONS: We conclude from these rodent studies that the early postnatal period is an important and sensitive phase that influences the vulnerability to develop AD pathology. Yet translational studies are required to investigate whether early life experiences also modify AD development in human studies, and whether similar molecular mediators can be identified in the sensitivity to develop AD in humans.