Messy tangles of a protein called tau can be found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and some other neurodegenerative diseases. In Alzheimer’s, the tangles coalesce just before tissue damage becomes visible in brain scans and people start to become forgetful and confused.
Now, a new study has found that brain immune cells called microglia – which are activated as tau tangles accumulate – form the crucial link between protein clumping and brain damage. The research, published Oct. 10 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, shows that eliminating such cells sharply reduces tau-linked brain damage in the mice – and suggests that suppressing such cells might prevent or delay the onset of dementia in people.
“Right now many people are trying to develop new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, because the ones we have are simply not effective,” said senior author David Holtzman, MD, the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor and head of the Department of Neurology. “If we could find a drug that specifically deactivates the microglia just at the beginning of the neurodegeneration phase of the disease, it would absolutely be worth evaluating in people.”