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The brain protein tau may hold the key for effective Alzheimer's treatments.

The brain protein tau may hold the key for effective Alzheimer's treatments.

A new development may be on the horizon for Alzheimer's treatment, and it's one that has researchers feeling optimistic about one day finding a cure for the debilitating brain health disease.

For years, much of the Alzheimer's scientific community has focused its efforts on studying amyloid beta, a sticky plaque build-up in the brain most commonly associated with the disease and its progression. This discovery sparked a number of drug trials aimed at reducing amyloid levels to reverse Alzheimer's disease, but none have proven successful. These setbacks, though, have inspired scientists to take a look at another brain protein called tau, which may work in conjunction with amyloid beta in spurring Alzheimer's disease. If true, this could explain why treatment methods that exclusively targeted amyloid — and ignored tau — have all failed.

"Clearly both [amyloid beta and tau] are working together, considering if you will, to bring down cell functions and cell survival over the years as the disease unfolds," neurologist Dr. Lennart Mucke tells NPR. "Initially it was thought that tau was purely inside brain cells. But now we recognize that it can actually exist outside of cells and even transfer from one cell to the next […] If we could figure out how to stop that spread, maybe one could limit the disease to just some brain regions, instead of having it go everywhere."

The idea that researchers have been seemingly squaring their sights on the wrong protein — or rather, weren't taking into account an equally important protein responsible for Alzheimer's — for the past decade may be a dispiriting one for some. But scientists are excited again. As Mucke notes, treatment efforts had been coming up against a brick wall "because the toolbox was nearly empty." With the realization of what kind of role tau plays in the disease, researchers will now have more tools to work with.

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