The biggest advancement in Alzheimer’s research is the imaging of two prominent contributors that build up in the brain and are assumed to be behind the disease which are plaques, the abnormal clumps of beta-amyloid protein pieces found between nerve cells, and tangles, twisted threads made up mainly of the protein that are found within the cells.
“It used to be that you could only see the plaques through an autopsy, but now we can image beta-amyloid in the living brain to see how it changes before somebody presents clinical symptoms,” says Laurie Ryan, chief of the Dementias of Aging Branch in the National Institute on Aging (NIA) Division of Neuroscience. Although tau imaging is still in its earliest stages, Ryan hopes that such imaging will accelerate drug development and that finding a blood-based biomarker for Alzheimer’s to reveal risk (much like cholesterol serves as a marker for cardiovascular risk) will change the field dramatically in terms of how doctors can diagnose the disease.
Using functioning human brain cells grown from stem cells, neuroscientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have most recently discovered how to create in a petri dish the same plaques and tangles associated with the Alzheimer’s. According to lead researcher Rudolph Tanzi, this key model will help accelerate research on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases that will be both more thorough and less expensive.