Alzheimer’s Disease: Tau Protein Predicts Early Memory Loss

PET imaging of brains affected by Alzheimer's disease

Caption: PET scan images show distribution of tau (top panel) and beta-amyloid (bottom panel) across a brain with early Alzheimer’s disease. Red indicates highest levels of protein binding, dark blue the lowest, yellows and oranges indicate moderate binding.
Credit: Brier et al., Sci Transl Med

In people with Alzheimer’s disease, changes in the brain begin many years before the first sign of memory problems. Those changes include the gradual accumulation of beta-amyloid peptides and tau proteins, which form plaques and tangles that are considered hallmarks of the disease. While amyloid plaques have received much attention as an early indicator of disease, until very recently there hadn’t been any way during life to measure the buildup of tau protein in the brain. As a result, much less is known about the timing and distribution of tau tangles and its relationship to memory loss.

Now, in a study published in Science Translational Medicine, an NIH-supported research team has produced some of the first maps showing where tau proteins build up in the brains of people with early Alzheimer’s disease [1]. The new findings suggest that while beta-amyloid remains a reliable early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, tau may be a more informative predictor of a person’s cognitive decline and potential response to treatment.

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LabTV: Young Scientist on a Mission to Cure Alzheimer’s Disease

Melissa Young LabTV

Time for another LabTV video! Today, I’d like you to meet Melissa Young, a third-year graduate student in the College of Pharmacy, University of Georgia, Athens. Young, who is doing research in the lab of James Franklin, says her scientific goal is to help build the scientific case that oxidative stress plays a key role in Alzheimer’s disease.

Young also has a personal reason for wanting to her research to succeed. From her experiences with a beloved grandmother and aunt, she has seen first-hand the heartbreaking effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia on both patients and their loved ones. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and no treatments to halt or reverse its progression. That’s one of the reasons why Young has chosen to go into an area of science focused on translating basic discoveries into new therapeutics.

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Creative Minds: Opening a Window on Alzheimer’s Before It Strikes

Yakeel Quiroz

Yakeel Quiroz

While attending college in her native Colombia, Yakeel T. Quiroz joined the Grupo de Neurociencias de Antioquia. This dedicated group of Colombian researchers, healthcare workers, and students has worked for many years with a large extended family in the northwestern district of Antioquia that is truly unique. About half of the more than 5,000 family members inherit a gene mutation that predisposes them to what is known locally as “la bobera,” or “the foolishness,” a devastating form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Those born with the mutation are cognitively healthy through their 20s, become forgetful in their 30s, and descend into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease by their mid-to- late 40s. Making matters worse, multiple family members sometimes are in different stages of dementia at the same time, including the caregiver attempting to hold the household together.

Quiroz, now a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, vowed never to forget these families. She hasn’t, working hard to understand early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and helping to establish the Forget Me Not Initiative to raise money for affected families. With an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Quiroz also recently launched her own lab to pursue an even broader scientific opportunity: discover subtle pre-symptomatic changes in the brain years before they give rise to detectable Alzheimer’s. What she learns will have application not only to detect and possibly treat early-onset Alzheimer’s in Colombia but also to understand the late-onset forms of the dementia that affect an estimated 35.6 million people worldwide.

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A Brain Pacemaker for Alzheimer’s Disease?

As many of you know, Alzheimer’s is an absolutely devastating neurodegenerative disease. It destroys the lives of loved ones with the disease, takes a terrible toll on family and friends who care for them, and costs, for patient care alone, an estimated $200 billion a year.

Illustration of a device implanted near the heart and a wire that leads to the brain.

The implanted wires stimulate the fornix, one of the first regions destroyed by Alzheimer’s. Credit: Functional Neuromodulation

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, robbing those it affects of their memory, their ability to learn and think, and their personality. It worsens over time. People forget recent events, and gradually lose the ability to manage their daily lives and care for themselves. It currently affects an estimated 5.1 million Americans; this number is expected to rise to somewhere between 11 and 16 million by 2050 unless treatments can be found in the meantime.

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease (AD), but biomedical researchers are testing new drugs and biochemical approaches, treatments that could stem and possibly reverse the course of the disease. They are also exploring how conditions like obesity and diabetes—which are at epidemic levels in the U.S. and worldwide—play a role. I want to tell you about a new NIH-funded experimental approach that was tried for the first time in the U.S. in November.

Neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, MD, implanted a ‘pacemaker’ in the brain of a patient with mild AD. You are probably familiar with the concept of a pacemaker that stabilizes heart rhythms. The implanted device sends electrical pulses to the heart muscle, resetting a normal heartbeat. In some ways, this pacemaker for AD is similar. It, too, sends electrical pulses, but targets a region of the brain called the fornix—a bundle of 1.2 million axons that normally serves as a superhighway for learning, emotion, and forming memories. The fornix is one of the first regions to be destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

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