By Cody Roark
A breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research is now possible with a new brain scan technique. This new scanning technique could certainly change everything we know about Alzheimer’s and how the disease functions.
Thanks to the new scanning technique, researchers now believe they can predict, with moderate precision, which regions of the brain will deteriorate and atrophy in Alzheimer’s by distinguishing the sites where tau protein “tangles” have built up.
“You could really predict which brain regions were going to get damaged just on the basis of the tau scans we took at the beginning of the study,” said lead researcher Renaud La Joie, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “Where the tau was built up at the beginning of the study was very predictive of where the actual brain shrinkage was going to happen in the next year or two.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a currently irreversible, progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys memory, thinking skills and, ultimately, the ability to complete even the simplest of tasks. In most people who have the disease, those with the late-onset type, symptoms first arise in their mid-60s. This discovery ensures the acceleration of clinical trial research, offering an innovative way to foretell the progression of the disease before significant symptoms develop.
There are two prominent signs of Alzheimer’s most researchers agree on. They are the buildup of amyloid proteins and the buildup of tau proteins in the brain. Irregular collections of amyloid proteins, referred to as plaques, are commonly considered to be the principal device behind the causes of Alzheimer’s. Quantities of misfolding tau proteins, accumulating into what is identified as neurofibrillary tangles, are also seen in the disease.
The question many researchers have been attempting to answer is, which comes first? The tau proteins or the amyloid proteins?
Positron emission tomography (PET) is a device that researchers currently use to capture images of different protein accumulations in the brain. Until recently it was nearly impossible to clearly distinguish tau aggregations in a living human brain, however, a newly developed imaging agent called flortaucipir has been a significant breakthrough in the research.
Over the past few years, researchers have frequently found flortaucipir PET imaging to adequately measure tau levels in living patients. This breakthrough has consequently led to studies measuring tau levels in brains at the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease. For the first time, researchers can now evaluate which protein buildup comes first, UC San Francisco scientists are proposing tau levels come before Alzheimer’s-related neurodegeneration.
This breakthrough has the potential to lead to treatments that could possibly slow the effects of the disease. It could even lead to a method of prevention for Alzheimer’s.