APOE ε4 and late-life cognition: mediation by structural brain imaging markers

Yuan Ma, Gautam Sajeev, Tyler J. VanderWeele, Anand Viswanathan, Sigurdur Sigurdsson, Gudny Eiriksdottir, Thor Aspelund, Rebecca A. Betensky, Francine Grodstein, Albert Hofman, Vilmundur Gudnason, Lenore Launer, Deborah Blacker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The apolipoprotein E allele 4 (APOE-ε4) is established as a major genetic risk factor for cognitive decline and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Accumulating evidence has linked ε4 carriership to abnormal structural brain changes across the adult lifespan. To better understand the underlying causal mechanisms, we investigated the extent to which the effect of the ε4 allele on cognition is mediated by structural brain imaging markers in the population-based Age, Gene/Environment Susceptibility–Reykjavik Study (AGES-Reykjavik). This study included 4527 participants (aged 76.3 ± 5.4 at baseline) who underwent the brain magnetic resonance imaging assessment (of brain tissue volumes, white matter lesion volume, subcortical and cortical infarcts, and cerebral microbleeds) and a battery of neuropsychological tests at baseline. Causal mediation analysis was used to quantify the mediation of the ε4 effect on cognition by these MRI markers, both individually and jointly. We observed that about 9% of the total effect of ε4 carriership on cognition was mediated by white matter lesion volume. This proportion increased to 25% when total brain tissue volume was jointly considered with white matter lesion volume. In analyses separating ε4 homozygotes from ε4 heterozygotes, the effect on global cognition of specifically ε4 homozygosity appeared to be partially mediated by cerebral microbleeds, particularly lobar microbleeds. There was no evidence of mediation of the ε4 effect by cortical or subcortical infarcts. This study shows that the ε4 effect on cognition is partly mediated by white matter lesion volume and total brain tissue volume. These findings suggest the joint role of cerebral small vessel disease and neurodegeneration in the ε4-cognition relationship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)591-601
Number of pages11
JournalEuropean Journal of Epidemiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • APOE gene
  • Dementia
  • Mediation analysis
  • Neuroimaging
  • Population-based cohort

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology


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