Alzheimer’s researchers have long known that dying, tau-filled cells first emerge in a small area of the brain where memories are made and stored. The disease then slowly moves outward to larger areas that involve remembering and reasoning. The new studies indicate it may be possible to bring Alzheimer’s disease to an abrupt halt early on by preventing cell-to-cell transmission, perhaps with an antibody that blocks tau.
The studies, done independently by researchers at Columbia and Harvard, involved genetically engineered mice that could make abnormal human tau proteins, predominantly in the entorhinal (pronounced en-toh-RYE-nal) cortex, a sliver of tissue behind the ears, toward the middle of the brain, where cells first start dying in Alzheimer’s disease. As expected, tau showed up there. And, as also expected, entorhinal cortex cells in the mice started dying, filled with tangled, spaghettilike strands of tau.
Researchers were able to develop genetically engineered mice that expressed abnormal human tau, but only in their entorhinal cortexes. Those mice offered the cleanest way to get an answer.
Over the next two years, the cell death and destruction spread outward to other cells along the same network. Since those other cells could not make human tau, the only way they could get the protein was by transmission from nerve cell to nerve cell. Researchers knew that something set off Alzheimer’s disease. The most likely candidate is a protein known as beta amyloid, which accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients, forming hard, barnaclelike plaques. But beta amyloid is very different from tau. It is secreted and clumps outside cells. Although researchers have looked, they have never seen evidence that amyloid spreads from cell to cell in a network.
If tau spreads from neuron to neuron, the researchers believe, it may be necessary to block both beta amyloid production, which seems to get the disease going, and the spread of tau, which continues it, to bring Alzheimer’s to a halt.
Read about this in the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/health/research/alzheimers-spreads-like-a-virus-in-the-brain-studies-find.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
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