The Tau of Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention

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REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Following a series of disappointments in Alzheimer’s drug research, scientists report they may have found a clue to predicting a more aggressive form of the disease.

So far, researchers and drug developers have mostly targeted beta-amyloid, the protein that forms the hallmark plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. These plaques are thought to gum up the brain and cause confusion, memory loss and reduced motor function in patients. (More on Time.com: The Truth About B Vitamins and the Alzheimer’s Brain)

But new research from the University of Washington at St. Louis suggests that another protein, tau — which contributes to the brain tangles in Alzheimer’s patients — deserves a second look. Researchers found that patients with high levels of tau, as measured by markers in the spinal fluid, were also likely to have a gene variation that seemed to predict how quickly the disease would progress.

This discovery could be a potential clue to new antidementia medication, suggested senior researcher Alison Goate to the Associated Press. A drug that could lower tau levels could perhaps help control the disease’s severity and speed. (More on Time.com: Study: Exercise Can Protect People at High Risk of Alzheimer’s)

The discovery adds an intriguing dimension to researchers’ understanding of the biological causes of Alzheimer’s, and suggests that further study into the interplay of beta-amyloid and tau may be in order. The AP reports:

Researchers have been measuring amyloid in hopes of learning to diagnose Alzheimer’s at its earliest stages. But autopsies find amyloid buildup in lots of elderly people who had no memory problems, so harboring amyloid alone doesn’t mean pending dementia.

The newest thinking is that the two proteins play a tandem role, with amyloid-run-amok the trigger for disease to start brewing years before it becomes apparent. Tau makes its entrance later, as symptoms appear.

Doctors are hoping to create a test to measure tau levels, and a Singapore-based company, TauRx Therapeutics, is also currently testing a drug to combat the protein.

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