For the first time, scientists have revealed the chemical structure of one of the key markers of Alzheimer’s disease, capturing high-resolution images of the abnormal tau protein deposits suspected to be behind Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions.
The results will now give scientists an unprecedented glimpse at how these harmful deposits function at a molecular level, and could lead to a number of new treatments to prevent them from forming – and in doing so, help to combat Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In the new study, researchers led by the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK extracted tau protein filaments from the brain of a deceased patient with a confirmed diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and imaged them using a technique called called cryo-electron microscopy.
Researchers have studied the tau protein’s involvement in Alzheimer’s for decades, but up until now, we’ve never been able to see tau filaments up so close – and the molecular insights afforded by the cryo-EM imaging performed here could mean the opportunities for drug discovery targeting tau is a whole new ball game.
“Drugs that could clear away clumps of protein in the brain are a key goal for researchers, but to directly affect these proteins, molecules that make up a drug need to latch on and bind to their surface,” explains the head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, Rosa Sancho.
Thanks to the tau structures obtained from the deceased patient, researchers now have the ability to investigate how abnormal filaments function at an atomic level in the human brain – and studying these tangles won’t only benefit Alzheimer’s research, the team says.
We won’t know the full ramifications of this discovery until scientists have a chance to follow up on the new findings presented here, but it’s clear that this could be a major turning point in studying how to counter these harmful protein clumps, with Ghetti describing the result as one of the major discoveries of the last quarter century of Alzheimer’s research.