Scientists have discovered for the first time exactly how a rogue protein leads to the brain condition.
In the the University of Cambridge study, they have shown the devastating tangles of the protein – tau – in unprecedented detail.
The researchers believe the findings can lead to the development of new drugs.
They used brain scans to get a clear view of the inside of a 74-year-old Alzheimer’s patient’s brain.
By unveiling the atomic structure of tau, the study authors hope they can produce drugs that prevent its formation, and therefore Alzheimer’s disease
By unveiling the atomic structure of tau, the study authors hope they can produce drugs that prevent its formation.
The research may also shed light on other neurological conditions caused by deformed proteins, such as Parkinson’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is caused by the presence of two abnormally accumulated proteins in the brain called tau and amyloid-beta.
Research has found tau lesions have a strong correlation to the loss of cognitive ability in patients with the disease.
Dr Sjors Scheres, of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, said: “It’s very exciting we were able to use this new technique to visualise filaments from a diseased brain as previous work depended on artificial samples assembled in the laboratory.
“Amyloid structures can form in many different ways, so it has been unclear how close these lab versions resembled those in human disease.
“Knowing which parts of tau are important for filament formation is relevant for the development of drugs.
“For example, many pharmaceutical companies are currently using different parts of tau in tests to measure the effect of different drugs on filament formation; this new knowledge should significantly increase the accuracy of such tests.”
It has been almost three decades since scientists in the same lab identified tau as being a key player in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research, Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “A buildup of tau protein is a feature of a number of different degenerative brain diseases, and this work could help to answer key questions about why it starts to behave unusually and how it leads to such a wide variety of conditions.
“As well as improving our understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s, knowing the precise structure of tau will help inform research into new treatments.
“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.
“Knowing the precise shape of these complex protein structures is enormously valuable in guiding the development of targeted drugs.”