Background: The metabolic basis of Alzheimer disease (AD) is poorly understood, and the relationships between systemic abnormalities in metabolism and AD pathogenesis are unclear. Understanding how global perturbations in metabolism are related to severity of AD neuropathology and the eventual expression of AD symptoms in at-risk individuals is critical to developing effective disease-modifying treatments. In this study, we undertook parallel metabolomics analyses in both the brain and blood to identify systemic correlates of neuropathology and their associations with prodromal and preclinical measures of AD progression. Methods and findings: Quantitative and targeted metabolomics (Biocrates AbsoluteIDQ [identification and quantification] p180) assays were performed on brain tissue samples from the autopsy cohort of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) (N = 44, mean age = 81.33, % female = 36.36) from AD (N = 15), control (CN; N = 14), and “asymptomatic Alzheimer’s disease” (ASYMAD, i.e., individuals with significant AD pathology but no cognitive impairment during life; N = 15) participants. Using machine-learning methods, we identified a panel of 26 metabolites from two main classes—sphingolipids and glycerophospholipids—that discriminated AD and CN samples with accuracy, sensitivity, and specificity of 83.33%, 86.67%, and 80%, respectively. We then assayed these 26 metabolites in serum samples from two well-characterized longitudinal cohorts representing prodromal (Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative [ADNI], N = 767, mean age = 75.19, % female = 42.63) and preclinical (BLSA) (N = 207, mean age = 78.68, % female = 42.63) AD, in which we tested their associations with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measures of AD-related brain atrophy, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) biomarkers of AD pathology, risk of conversion to incident AD, and trajectories of cognitive performance. We developed an integrated blood and brain endophenotype score that summarized the relative importance of each metabolite to severity of AD pathology and disease progression (Endophenotype Association Score in Early Alzheimer’s Disease [EASE-AD]). Finally, we mapped the main metabolite classes emerging from our analyses to key biological pathways implicated in AD pathogenesis. We found that distinct sphingolipid species including sphingomyelin (SM) with acyl residue sums C16:0, C18:1, and C16:1 (SM C16:0, SM C18:1, SM C16:1) and hydroxysphingomyelin with acyl residue sum C14:1 (SM (OH) C14:1) were consistently associated with severity of AD pathology at autopsy and AD progression across prodromal and preclinical stages. Higher log-transformed blood concentrations of all four sphingolipids in cognitively normal individuals were significantly associated with increased risk of future conversion to incident AD: SM C16:0 (hazard ratio [HR] = 4.430, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.703–11.520, p = 0.002), SM C16:1 (HR = 3.455, 95% CI = 1.516–7.873, p = 0.003), SM (OH) C14:1 (HR = 3.539, 95% CI = 1.373–9.122, p = 0.009), and SM C18:1 (HR = 2.255, 95% CI = 1.047–4.855, p = 0.038). The sphingolipid species identified map to several biologically relevant pathways implicated in AD, including tau phosphorylation, amyloid-β (Aβ) metabolism, calcium homeostasis, acetylcholine biosynthesis, and apoptosis. Our study has limitations: the relatively small number of brain tissue samples may have limited our power to detect significant associations, control for heterogeneity between groups, and replicate our findings in independent, autopsy-derived brain samples. Conclusions: We present a novel framework to identify biologically relevant brain and blood metabolites associated with disease pathology and progression during the prodromal and preclinical stages of AD. Our results show that perturbations in sphingolipid metabolism are consistently associated with endophenotypes across preclinical and prodromal AD, as well as with AD pathology at autopsy. Sphingolipids may be biologically relevant biomarkers for the early detection of AD, and correcting perturbations in sphingolipid metabolism may be a plausible and novel therapeutic strategy in AD.
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