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Expert perspectives: Could new imaging advancements help unlock the mysteries of tau proteins in Alzheimer’s patients?

Last week, researchers from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan published findings in the journal Neuron signaling that they’d closed in on a diagnostic method to detect tangles of tau proteins previously linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The work relies on a newly-developed chemical the researchers created that can actually bind to tau proteins in the brain. In turn, positron emission tomography (PET) scanning can then reveal any buildup of these tau proteins in patients suspected of having Alzheimer’s.

So just how big an advancement could this research be?

The cause of the dementia characteristic of Alzheimer’s isn’t yet fully clear, but abnormal clusters of beta-amyloid protein fragments between nerve cells (plaques) and twisted strands of tau proteins (tangles) are suspected to contribute to cell death and tissue loss in the brains of patients suffering Alzheimer’s.

“Imaging tau-containing neurofibrillary tangles is a hot topic in Alzheimer’s research,” said Karen Ashe, M.D., Ph.D., a University of Minnesota neuroscientist and director of the N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care. “But whether the structures detected are directly involved in the destruction of the brain or just an indication of invisible pathological processes at work remains unclear.”

Ashe’s research focuses on the mechanisms by which tau and beta-amyloid proteins disrupt brain function. In 2005, she discovered that memory loss is reversible in mice, meaning plaques and tangles aren’t the direct cause of memory loss, but rather symptoms showing the condition has occurred.

Diagnostic detection of tau proteins could someday complement the work of researchers like Ashe as they expand the understanding around the role of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in neurodegeneration, as well as drive the development of medication that could target plaques and tangles.

Eric Karran, M.D., director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, alluded to this work when he told the BBC: “With new drugs in development designed to target tau, scans capable of visualising the protein inside the brain could be important for assessing whether treatments in clinical trials are hitting their target.”

Stay tuned to Health Talk for more on future Alzheimer’s advancements.

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