How the humble fruit fly is helping research into Alzheimer’s disease

Meet Professor Amrit Mudher, whose research uses fruit flies to understand how tau protein changes in Alzheimer’s. 

‘For me, it’s a fascination with how the brain changes during aging and becomes vulnerable to disease.

‘But then, more importantly, trying to understand Alzheimer’s disease so that we can address this huge global challenge that is becoming increasingly pressing.’ 

Now a professor at the University of Southampton, Amrit Mudher says our support acted as a ‘springboard’ for her achievements. 

I was funded by Alzheimer’s Society right from the beginning of my career. The fellowship they awarded me in 2001 paved the way for the work that I’m doing now.

Professor Amrit Mudher

Beneath the skin 

From the outset, Amrit’s research focused on tau. This is a protein that plays an important role in transporting materials between the ends of each nerve cell in the brain. 

It was suspected that, when tau becomes abnormal in Alzheimer’s disease, these materials aren’t transported across the cell as well. The problem was proving this in a living animal. 

Our funding enabled Amrit to develop a fruit fly where material being transported across their nerve cells has a fluorescent ‘tag’. 

‘Nerve cells in the fruit fly are no different to those in any other animal, and the fly has a larval stage where its skin is transparent. You can actually look at cells lying beneath the skin.’ 

After anaesthetising the flies, Amrit’s team could see how the transport of fluorescent-tagged materials across cells was being affected. 

She says, ‘We were able to prove that, once the tau starts to become abnormal in the brain, the material can’t get from one end of the nerve to another.

That cell can’t communicate with its target, and the behaviour it would normally control is impaired. 

They also showed that, if they used a chemical that played the role tau usually would, the cell could function well again.

Stopping the spread 

In Alzheimer’s, abnormal tau spreads between cells – eventually affecting the whole brain. Amrit hopes that understanding how this happens will help us find a way to stop this spread and halt the disease. 

‘That’s the project the Society is funding at the moment, again using fruit flies.

The beauty of these flies is that it’s very easy to see when tau does jump from one cell to another.

By trying different chemicals and modifying specific genes, Amrit’s team can see which of these tweaks stop tau’s spread between the flies’ cells. Ultimately, a drug mimicking these may do the same for a person with Alzheimer’s. 

They’re not keeping the flies to themselves – other researchers have many compounds whose effects they’d like to test. These flies provide a simple, effective way to do this. 

‘I work on a model that was really given a chance by Alzheimer’s Society,’ says Amrit. 

Who would have ever thought that the humble fruit fly can actually tell you anything meaningful about Alzheimer’s disease?

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Dementia together magazine is for all Alzheimer’s Society supporters and anyone affected by the condition.
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Dementia together magazine is for all Alzheimer’s Society supporters and anyone affected by the condition.
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