Jul 5, 2017 - Health

A snapshot of Alzheimer's

In this image of neurons, tau proteins are stained red (Gerry Shaw / Wikipedia)

Scientists have taken detailed images of one of the proteins involved in Alzheimers Disease for the first time, which may help researchers create treatments for the disease.

Alzheimers is characterized by a buildup of two proteins, tau proteins inside of neurons and amyloid plaques on the outside. Healthy tau proteins look sort of like fiber-optic cables that help support neurons. But sometimes, those proteins become tangled, and the tangles can build up and warp the neuron's shape, rendering them useless.

Why it matters: Tau tangles have been implicated in a number of neuro-degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's Disease. These detailed images allow scientists to parse apart the molecular structure of the tangles, which could help them understand why the tangles happen, how they spread, and possibly even develop drugs to treat them.

What they did: The scientists, working at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis used a technique called cryo-electron microcopy or cryo-EM to image tau tangles from the brain of a 86-year-old woman who died while ill with Alzheimer's. Their paper was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Electron micrograph of tau filaments. Two different types of filaments are flagged with blue and green arrows.Fitzpatrick et al 2017

Slow down: It still isn't clear if tau tangles, amyloid plaques or something else cause Alzheimer's. Some research suggests that the two work together, while other studies suggest that amyloids could be red herrings. Even if treating tau proteins helps treat Alzheimers, it could be decades before any tau-targeting treatments hit the market. Still, this molecular understanding is a big step.

What's next: The researchers hope that by imaging tau proteins in other diseases, they'll be able to see if they form similarly or differently than Alzheimer's tau tangles.

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