Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Research on Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a great mystery. Not only do we not really understand the underlying cause, we don’t understand the mechanism of its progression. The better that researchers come to understand the cause and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, the greater our chances of being able to find effective treatments or even a cure.

An article in the New York Times today highlights an exciting new development in Alzheimer’s research. This newly published research suggests that Alzheimer’s disease may progress in the brain not unlike an infection.

In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, abnormal proteins are created in the patients brains which are regularly found on autopsy. One of these proteins (the human tau protein), when abnormal, is known to be particularly destructive to brain tissue.

In this study researchers used genetically modified rats that had been bred to produce abnormal human tau proteins in a very small and specific location in their brains. What is fascinating about this research is that the researchers found that the tau proteins actually spread out from this initial focal point to other areas of the brain causing damage in their wake. It seems that the abnormal tau proteins are somehow being transported there by neurons, rather than being produced locally throughout the brain.

The reason this discovery is so important is that researchers now have a model to test ways of preventing the “spread” of Alzheimer’s disease. Because the rats were bred to only produce this abnormal protein in a specific area (where Alzheimer’s damage typically starts in humans), researchers can develop drugs and easily see if they can prevent the spreading of these dangerous proteins.

While this research does not answer the question of what triggers the human tau protein to initially be deposited at all, it does allow researchers to try to learn how to prevent it’s spread. Preventing whatever causes the tau protein to be spread through the brain may go a long way towards preventing the devastating brain damage and memory loss that is characteristic of this terrible disease as it progresses.

You can read the New York Times article here, and find the original study from PLoS One here.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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