Scientists make Alzheimer’s breakthrough

Scientists have made a key discovery in the study of Alzheimer's disease, finding that the disease may spread like an infection from brain cell to brain cell, The New York Times reported.

The study, which was published in the journal PLoS One, increases the possibility of one day being able to stop the spread of Alzheimer’s by containing the abnormal tau proteins, which researchers discovered spread through the brain.  

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The Times reported the advances have "immediate implications for developing treatments."

Scientists conducted an experiment that suggested that abnormal tau, a protein found naturally occurring in the brain, spreads like an infection. They created genetically engineered mice that produced human tau in a section of their brain. The scientists found the tau moved to other parts of the brain that couldn't make the protein. The results were “very unexpected,” said a doctor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, according to the Times. When abnormal tau proteins spread and clump, neurons die, causing memory loss and loss of function.

Scientists have long known that Alzheimer’s patients have a buildup of a plaque like substance called amyloid, but they did not know if it killed neurons. Tau proteins, they said, explain cell death. The Times wrote, "amyloid creates what amounts to a bad neighborhood in memory regions of the brain. Then tau comes in — some researchers call it 'the executioner' — piling up inside cells and killing them."

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Reuters reported that current treatments focus on amyloid accumulation after symptoms appear, and focusing on tau may be able to halt the disease before symptoms show. "Most late-stage Alzheimer's drugs, including Eli Lilly and Co's solanezumab, and Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer's bapineuzumab, take aim at amyloid, which accumulates silently 15 to 20 years before signs of dementia appear."

The knowledge that proteins can spread through the brain like infection may help to explain — and treat — other challenging degenerative diseases, like Parkinson's, researchers said.

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