March 29, 2018 / All Stories

Science Rocks! Seeing Alzheimer’s Disease More Clearly

For the first time, researchers have visualized in detail two types of tau protein fibers, which are offering a deeper understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.

Science Rocks features AbbVie scientists who share interesting research in their field and why it matters. In this month's feature, Kerstin Buck, senior scientist, discovery, AbbVie, highlights a recent advance in the study of Alzheimer’s disease – the ability to visualize protein buildup in the brain.

One of the first telltale signs you see when looking under the microscope of a brain from a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is the build up of abnormal protein deposits. Two types of protein deposits have been detected: sticky plaques of amyloid-ß, which form around neurons, and so-called tangles found within the brain cells formed by the tau protein. Tau is thought to go haywire and, when that happens, starts to cluster together forming large tangled fibers inside the cells of people with Alzheimer’s. The appearance of these tangles correlates with memory deficits in patients, and so scientists believe that the build-up of tau in the brain is the final step in a toxic chain of events that causes nerve cells in the brain to die.

For the first time, researchers have visualized and characterized in detail the structure of these tangles, isolated from the brain of a person who had Alzheimer’s disease. A technology called cryo-electron microscopy enabled scientists to image at high-resolution two different types of tau fibers, and found that while composed of identical features, they were differently arranged. The fact that these tangles came directly from a diseased brain is very unique and suggests that the identified structure is relevant to the human disease.

Understanding how these tau tangles are organized adds new possibilities for preventing this abnormal build up in the brain, which might be the cause for the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. This, in turn, could result in getting one step closer to a promising therapy to halt or slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

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