The human brain is the most cholesterol-rich organ harboring 25% of the total cholesterol pool of the whole body. Cholesterol present in the central nervous system (CNS) comes, almost entirely, from the endogenous synthesis, being circulating cholesterol unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Astrocytes seem to be more active than neurons in this process. Neurons mostly depend on cholesterol delivery from nearby cells for axonal regeneration, neurite extension and synaptogenesis. Within the brain, cholesterol is transported by HDL-like lipoproteins associated to apoE which represents the main apolipoprotein in the CNS.
Although CNS cholesterol content is largely independent of dietary intake or hepatic synthesis, a relationship between plasma cholesterol level and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), has often been reported. To this regard, alterations of cholesterol metabolism were suggested to be implicated in the etiology of AD and amyloid production in the brain. Therefore a special attention was dedicated to the study of the main factors controlling cholesterol metabolism in the brain.
Brain cholesterol levels are tightly controlled: its excessive amount can be reduced through the conversion into the oxidized form of 24-S-hydroxycholesetrol (24-OH-C), which can reach the blood stream. In fact, the BBB is permeable to 24-OH-C as well as to 27-OH-C, another oxidized form of cholesterol mainly synthesized by non- neural cells.
In this review, we summarize the main mechanisms regulating cholesterol homeostasis and review the recent advances on the role played by cholesterol and cholesterol oxidized products in AD. Moreover, we delineate possible pharmacological strategies to control AD progression by affecting cholesterol homeostasis.