Thanks to recent innovations in brain imaging technology, scientists at the University of Cambridge believe they’ve discovered how Alzheimer’s spreads throughout a patient’s brain. Researchers hope these new images will help people in the medical community better understand how to better prevent Alzheimer’s in the future.
The medical community currently understands that the buildup of the proteins amyloid beta and tau are the leading culprits of Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors don’t know, however, how amyloid beta helps tau enter the brain and disrupt destroy neurons.
For the longest time, doctors only had the technical ability to perform brain scans on deceased Alzheimer’s patients. With the recent advances in positron emission tomography (PED) scans, however, scientists now have the opportunity to look at the brains of living Alzheimer’s patients for the first time.
To understand how tau spreads in the brain, Cambridge professors injected a special substance that binds with tau into study participants. In total, 17 males with Alzheimer’s participated in this study. All of these results were compared with men who were Alzheimer’s free.
In their report, study authors argue that tau most likely spreads from one part of the brain to others in a chain reaction. This is officially known as the “transneuronal spread theory” in the medical field.
There are three major theories that have been proposed to explain the spread of tau in Alzheimer’s patients. Besides transneuronal spread, the other two theories include “trophic support” and “metabolic vulnerability.”
Doctors who support the trophic support theory believe certain nutrient-deficient areas of the brain create better breeding ground for tau. Metabolic vulnerability, on the other hand, posits that tau is produced in the brain by damaged cells.
While there’s still a great deal of research to be done in this field, Cambridge scientists believe this is a great leap forward in the world’s understanding of this devastating disease. If tau does in fact form chain reactions in the neurons, then drug companies could start working on effective tau-blocking drugs. These drugs could potentially slow down or even cure Alzheimer’s.
Approximately 5 million Americans, most of whom are over 60, have some stage of Alzheimer’s disease. The tell tale signs of Alzheimer’s include impaired memory, unclear thinking, difficulty performing daily tasks, and erratic behavior. While there’s no cure for this disease, there are treatment strategies like medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and diet changes.
Thomas E. Cope, who teaches at Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences, was the lead researcher on this project. A few other key study participants include Drs. Timothy Rittman, P. Simon Jones, and Deniz Vatansever, all of whom also work in Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences.
Study authors published this report under the title “Tau burden and the functional connectome in Alzheimer’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy” in the latest edition of Brain: A Journal Of Neurology.