Behavioural symptoms are a significant problem in Alzheimers disease (AD). Symptoms including agitation/aggression and psychosis reduce patient quality of life, significantly increase caregiver burden, and often trigger nursing home placement. Underlying changes in the serotonergic, noradrenergic and cholinergic systems have been linked to some behavioural problems, however, the use of antipsychotics in this population has been associated with significant safety concerns. A role for the glutamate system in schizophrenia, as well as in anxiety and depression, has been suggested, and evidence is emerging for a role for dysfunctional glutamate neurotransmission (via N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors) in certain behavioural changes in dementia. For example, the NMDA receptor antagonist, memantine has been shown to improve cognition, function (activities of daily living, ADLs) and, more recently, agitation/aggression, and delusions in AD patients. To date, little information is available regarding the neurochemical basis of agitation/aggression. However, the frontal and cingulate cortices – specifically, the formation of neurofibrillary tangles in glutamatergic pyramidal neurones of these areas – are proposed as regional substrates of these behaviours. Given that memantine displays a favourable tolerability profile, it is relevant to investigate the underlying mechanism linking memantine with the behavioural elements of AD. One hypothesis proposes that memantine corrects dysfunctional glutamatergic neurotransmission in the frontal and cingulate cortices, thereby normalising pathways responsible for causing agitation. An alternative hypothesis is based on the observation that increased tangle formation is associated with agitation, and on recent studies where memantine has been shown to reduce tau phosphorylation via glycogen synthase kinase (GSK)-3 or activation of protein phosphatase (PP)-2A, which might subsequently lead to reduced agitation.
Keywords: Alzheimer's disease, glutamate, neurofibrillary tangles, tau, agitation