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University of Minnesota researchers link tau to Alzheimer’s disease

The University of Minnesota said Wednesday that scientists have established a firm relationship between a protein known as tau and Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of elderly dementia in the United States. In a study published in the journal Neuron, researchers say that an early buildup of tau in the dendritic spines, a region […]

The University of Minnesota said Wednesday that scientists have established a firm relationship between a protein known as tau and Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of elderly dementia in the United States.

In a study published in the journal Neuron, researchers say that an early buildup of tau in the dendritic spines, a region of the brain responsible for electrochemical stimulation, can cause memory loss by disrupting communications between brain cells.

Tau has long been considered an early biomarker for the onset of Alzheimer’s. By forging a direct link between tau and a specific brain area and function, researchers could possibly design ways to treat Alzheimer’s before it significantly damages the brain.

“Research has shown that in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, that more tau is present in the cell body, and that an accumulation of tau proteins can induce neurodegeneration,”  Karen Ashe, a university neuroscientist and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “But no prior study has addressed how tau diminishes brain function.  Our study was designed to show how tau can impact the decline of brain functioning so that therapies can be designed to combat the trend.”

The study is also significant because it could open a promising new avenue of research into Alzheimer’s. Until now, pharmaceutical makers have mostly focused on reducing amyloid plaques, another protein buildup  in the brain. But clinical trials for such treatments have failed and some scientists wonder if there’s any connection between amyloid and Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s currently affects about five million patients in the United States, a number that’s expected to triple by 2050 as the country’s Baby Boomer generation grows old. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and very few treatments for it, mostly because the disease has already progressed to the point where drugs are ineffective.

As a result, scientists have been trying to identify biomarkers that could help doctors diagnose the disease earlier. Researchers estimate that it takes a decade or more for patients to exhibit obvious signs of Alzheimer’s, including memory loss.

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Unfortunately, scientists don’t even know what causes the disease, though some suspect genetics or lifestyle choices like diets.