New study reveals microscopic structure of Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology have uncovered the atomic structures of tau - one of the two types of abnormal filaments which lead to Alzheimer's disease

Understanding the structures of these filaments is key to developing drugs to prevent their formation. The researchers, whose study is published today in Nature, believe the structures they have revealed may suggest how tau protein may form different filaments in other neurodegenerative diseases.

Commenting on the research, Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Society, said:

“Tau protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, has never been seen in this level of detail before. Many drugs work like a key in a lock, and this discovery shows us the inner workings of the tau protein ‘lock’.

“The ability to picture what the lock looks like could help scientists design more precise drugs that act on the tau protein and stop damage to the brain. With this knowledge, computer models can measure millions of potential drug molecules against the tau protein, giving immediate clues to suggest which should be tested further.

“Developing these accurate pictures is technically very challenging. The picture presented comes from studying the tau protein in a single person’s brain who died with Alzheimer’s disease. But one third of people with dementia have a disease other than Alzheimer’s, so studying the shape of tau in other forms of dementia will be important to help discover drugs for those conditions.

“This study could take us into a new era of drug design, but it can take 10-15 years to develop new drugs from this very early stage of drug discovery. There is currently no cure, but studies like this give us hope that research will deliver better treatments for people with Alzheimer’s disease.”