Amyloid precursor protein (APP) is an integral membrane protein expressed in many tissues and concentrated in the synapses of neurons. Its primary function is not known, though it has been implicated as a regulator of synapse formation and neural plasticity. APP is best known and most commonly studied as the precursor molecule whose proteolysis generates amyloid beta (Aβ), a 39- to 42-amino acid peptide whose amyloid fibrillar form is the primary component of amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients.
, the gene
for APP is located on chromosome 21
and contains at least 18 exons
in 240 kilobases
. Several alternative splicing
isoforms of APP have been observed in humans, ranging in length from 365 to 770 amino acids, with certain isoforms preferentially expressed in neurons; changes in the neuronal ratio of these isoforms have been associated with Alzheimer's disease. Homologous
proteins have been identified in other organisms such as Drosophila
(fruit flies), C. elegans
(roundworms), and all mammals
. The amyloid beta region of the protein, located in the membrane-spanning domain, is not well conserved across species and has no obvious connection with APP's native-state
Mutations in critical regions of Amyloid Precursor Protein, including the region that generates amyloid beta, are known to cause familial susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease. For example, several mutations outside the Aβ region associated with familial Alzheimer's have been found to dramatically increase production of Aβ.
A number of distinct, largely independently-folding
have been identified in the APP sequence. The extracellular region, much larger than the intracellular region, is divided into the E1 and E2 domains; E1 contains several subdomains including a growth factor-like domain
(GFLD), a metal-binding motif, and a serine protease inhibitor
domain that is absent from the isoform differentially expressed in the brain. The E2 domain contains a coiled coil
dimerization motif and may bind proteoglycans
in the extracellular matrix
. The complete crystal structure of APP has not yet been solved; however, individual domains have been successfully crystallized, including the copper
-binding domain in multiple configurations and ion-binding states and the E2 dimerization domain.
APP undergoes extensive post-translational modification
, and tyrosine sulfation
, as well as many types of proteolytic
processing to generate peptide fragments. It is commonly cleaved by proteases
in the secretase
family; alpha secretase
and beta secretase
both remove nearly the entire extracellular domain to release membrane-anchored carboxy-terminal
fragments that may be associated with apoptosis
. Cleavage by gamma secretase
within the membrane-spanning domain generates the amyloid-beta fragment; gamma secretase is a large multi-subunit complex whose components have not yet been fully characterized, but include presenilin
, whose gene has been identified as a major genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's.
The amyloidogenic processing of APP has been linked to its presence in lipid rafts. When APP molecules occupy a lipid raft region of membrane, they are more accessible to and differentially cleaved by beta secretase, whereas APP molecules outside a raft are differentially cleaved by the non-amyloidogenic alpha secretase. Gamma secretase activity has also been associated with lipid rafts. The role of cholesterol in lipid raft maintenance has been cited as a likely explanation for observations that high cholesterol and apolipoprotein E genotype are major risk factors for Alzheimer's disease.
Although the native biological role of APP is of obvious interest to Alzheimer's research, thorough understanding has remained elusive. The most-substantiated role for APP is in synaptic formation and repair; its expression
during neuronal differentiation
and after neural injury. Roles in cell signaling
, long-term potentiation
, and cell adhesion
have been proposed and supported by as-yet limited research. In particular, similarities in post-translational processing have invited comparisons to the signaling role of the surface receptor
.APP knockout mice
are viable and have relatively minor phenotypic
effects including impaired long-term potentiation and memory loss without general neuron loss. On the other hand, transgenic mice with upregulated APP expression have also been reported to show impaired long-term potentiation.The logical inference is that because Aβ accumulates excessively in Alzheimer's disease its precursor, APP, would be elevated as well. However, neuronal cell bodies contain less APP as a function of their proximity to amyloid plaques. The data indicate that this deficit in APP results from a decline in production rather than an increase in catalysis. Loss of a neuron's APP may effect physiological deficits that contribute to dementia.