Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating condition that is currently unstoppable and incurable. The main cause of the disease is the loss of neurons and other brain cells in the brain – also know as degeneration. This degeneration is what leads to problems with memory and other cognitive functions.
Researchers can tell which neurons die first or exhibit increased vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease based on where they’re located in the brain and what they look like. But they don’t know what genes or proteins these neurons express. Knowing these factors is important for recognising and identifying the changes in specific cells that happen when disease is present.
Now, a recent study has shown that neurons expressing a specific protein are more vulnerable to degeneration. Understanding which neurons are more vulnerable – and why – might allow researchers to develop targets for potential treatments in the future.
To conduct their study, scientists performed a post-mortem brain analysis on people who had Alzheimer’s disease. To see how far the disease had progressed, they began by looking for build-ups of the protein tau in different parts of the brain. In people with Alzheimer’s disease, tau proteins aggregate in cells, which usually causes the cells to die. Tau accumulates differently in different brain areas, which is why some areas exhibit a greater degree of degeneration.
After identifying the disease progression, the researchers then focused their attention on two specific brain regions: the entorhinal cortex and the superior frontal gyrus. The entorhinal cortex is involved in memory, while the superior frontal gyrus plays a role in functions associated with self-awareness.
Tau accumulates in the entorhinal cortex in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but doesn’t accumulate until later on in the superior frontal gyrus. By looking at two areas with different cell loss in different disease stages, scientists could look for differences in the same cell types. This could also potentially allow them to uncover what makes them vulnerable, and when they become vulnerable.