Alzheimer’s disease, other conditions linked to prion-like proteins

A new theory about disorders that attack the brain and spinal column has received a significant boost from scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The theory attributes these disorders to proteins that act like prions, which are copies of a normal protein that have been corrupted in ways that cause diseases. Scientists previously thought that only one particular protein could be corrupted in this fashion, but researchers in the laboratory of Marc Diamond, MD, report that another protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease and many other neurodegenerative conditions also behaves very much like a prion.

The findings appear online May 22 in Neuron.

Diamond’s lab found that the protein, known as tau, could be corrupted in different ways, and that these different forms of corruption — known as strains — were linked to distinct forms of damage to the brain.

“If we think of these different tau strains as different pathogens, then we can begin to describe many human disorders linked to tau based on the strains that underlie them,” said senior author Diamond, the David Clayson Professor of Neurology. “This may mean that certain antibodies or drugs, for example, will work better against certain disorders than others.”

The study was led by co-first authors David Sanders and Sarah Kaufman, who are graduate students.

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