How The Brain Changes In Alzheimer’s Disease: A New View

Unpicking how brain proteins interact may create new strategies to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s Disease. hernanpc/flickr

Danielle Andrew 18 Nov 2016, 13:24

The ConversationMost people have heard of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. The disease has no cure and few, but inefficient, treatments. Despite their best efforts, doctors and researchers still don’t know the sequence of brain changes that causes this debilitating disorder.

Our new study challenges a commonly held view of how Alzheimer’s disease develops, and suggests a new clinical angle to reduce its impact.

So common, still no cure

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, characterised by progressive loss of cognition – our ability to learn, remember and plan our lives. Over 35 million people are currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease worldwide, with figures set to increase significantly due to an ageing population.

Unfortunately, we have no cure and current therapies are limited to very modest symptomatic relief. Therefore, there is a great need for understanding how Alzheimer’s disease develops, and what the underlying processes are in order to develop effective treatments.

Changes to proteins cause brain cell death

After death, the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients are typically found to contain two types of abnormal structures when viewed under the microscope: plaques and tangles. Plaques contain a protein known as amyloid beta, and tangles consist of a protein called tau.

Light micrograph of brain tissue stained with a silver impregnation. A plaque (upper centre) and a pyramid-shaped neuron with a tangle (lower left) can be seen. Both lesions are typical in Alzheimer’s disease. from www.shutterstock.com

Tau is a protein that normally resides within brain cells (also called neurons). However, tau in Alzheimer’s disease brain tangles is not the same as tau in normal brains.

Tau in tangles has a unique structure, and is called phosphorylated because it carries extra molecules known as phosphates attached to the main protein backbone. This changes the way the protein behaves inside the neuron.

The prevailing belief in Alzheimer’s disease research is the addition of phosphate groups to create phosphorylated tau promotes disease development.

Our recent research challenges this assumption.

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