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Two Studies Show Alzheimer’s Disease May Spread By ‘Jumping’ From One Brain Region To Another

Findings open new opportunities for studying Alzheimer’s and testing potential therapies

February 2, 2012

Sources: Neuron and PLoS ONE

Healthy Neuron showing tau protein

Healthy Neuron Showing
the Normal Tau Protein


Illustration created for
BrightFocus by Bob Morreale

Two different research groups independently made the same discovery:  the Alzheimer's disease protein, called tau, can spread from one part of the brain to other connected regions, effectively "jumping" from one nerve cell (neuron) to another.  

The finding is groundbreaking because for decades researchers have debated whether Alzheimer's disease starts independently in vulnerable brain regions at different times, or if it begins in one region and then spreads from neuron to neuron to other areas of the brain.  The answer appears to be the latter.  It's important because if scientists can find the mechanism by which tau spreads from one cell to another, Alzheimer's disease could potentially be stopped from spreading.

Dr. Bradley HymanAlzheimer's Disease Research, a program of the BrightFocus Foundation, funded Dr. Bradley T. Hyman, co-investigator Dr. Teresa Gomez-Isla, and their colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital for their major discovery. Dr. Hyman's research will be published later this month in the journal, Neuron.

A second study by Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researcher, Karen E. Duff, Ph.D.,  at CUMC and at the New York State Psychiatric Institute,  also demonstrates that abnormal tau protein, a key feature of the neurofibrillary tangles seen in the brains of those with Alzheimer's, grows along linked brain circuits, “jumping” from neuron to neuron. Dr. Duff's research was published in PLoS ONE.

Both research projects were highlighted in the February 2 issue of the New York Times.

The findings of the studies have important implications for therapy to reduce or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Treatments could conceivably target tau during its earlier phases, before or as it moves from cell to cell. Said Dr. Duff, “This would prevent the disease from spreading to other regions of the brain, which is associated with more severe dementia.”

Adapted from Columbia University Medical Center

For more information, please see the following:

View all news updates for Alzheimer's disease


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Some of the content in this section is adapted from other sources, which are clearly identified within each individual item of information.

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