New Research Study Discovers Potential Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Researchers determine the abnormal buildup of one form of the protein tau may be a treatable cause of Alzheimer’s disease

When an individual suffers from dementia, doctors determine whether it is Alzheimer’s by the presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The plaques consist of a buildup of amyloid peptides and the tangles are primary composed of a protein called tau. However, about 20 percent of individuals with plaques don’t develop dementia, so it appears that these are a symptom but not a cause of the disease. Instead, researchers have turned to examining the tangles found in the brains of patient’s who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease to learn about the different forms that the protein tau takes and how these forms may be related to the development of the disease.

UCR Chemistry Professor Ryan Julian and his colleagues conducted research to study hard to find differences in the form of the tau protein which permitted them to differentiate between patients who exhibited signs of dementia and those who didn’t. The results from this study have recently been published in the Journal of Proteome Research.

These researchers examined the different forms a molecule can take which are called isomers. According to Julian, “An isomer is the same molecule with a different three-dimensional orientation than the original. A common example would be hands. Hands are isomers of each other, mirror images but not exact copies. Isomers can actually have a handedness. The amino acids that make up proteins can either be right-handed or left-handed isomers. Normally, proteins in living things are made from all left-handed amino acids.”

A large number of donated brains were scanned for tau proteins. The researchers discovered that brains of people that did not exhibit signs of dementia but which had tau buildup displayed “normal” tau. However, brains of people who had symptoms of dementia and tau buildup exhibited an alternate-handed form of tau.

The natural process of getting rid of defective proteins is called autophagy. This process is known to slow down with age. Julian hypothesizes that deficient autophagy, in particular as it relates to removing abnormal tau protein could be the cause of Alzheimer’s. If this can be confirmed, tactics that improve autophagy such as intermittent fasting and exercise could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease from developing.

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