Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have identified a way they say Alzheimer's disease can spread through the brain.
Their study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, says the toxic protein tau jumps from one neuron to another. They say their discovery helps explain why just one area of the brain is affected when Alzheimer's begins, but that much of the brain is damaged in the disease's later stages.
They say it also explains why Alzheimer's always gets progressively worse, never better. Significantly, however, that could change.
“By learning how tau spreads, we may be able to stop it from jumping from neuron to neuron,” said Karen Duff, professor in the department of pathology and cell biology.
Limiting the damage
If doctors were successful in doing so, she says they might be able to stop or limit the progression of the disease.
This isn't the first time researchers have suggested that Alzheimer’s can spread through the brain. The idea first gained traction among medical scientists earlier in the decade when it was found tau moved from neuron to neuron through the brains of mice.
The latest study found that tau travels within the brain, moving from neuron to neuron. That allows it to affect other parts of the brain. Duff says that has important clinical implications.
“When tau is released into the extracellular space, it would be much easier to target the protein with therapeutic agents, such as antibodies, than if it had remained in the neuron,” she said.
The new study is just the latest in an area that is receiving intense focus as the large Baby Boom generation enters old age. Health policymakers are concerned about the huge toll on the healthcare system if Alzheimer's cases multiply as predicted.
In one of the most promising recent developments, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and UCLA found they could reverse memory loss.
It was an extremely small study, but the researchers say they are excited because it could hold significant potential. The therapy uses existing drugs, along with a strict program of dietary changes, brain stimulation, physical exercise, and sleep optimization.