WASHINGTON – Researchers have uncovered a new clue to the cause of Alzheimer's disease.
The brains of people with the memory-robbing form of dementia are cluttered with a plaque made up of beta-amyloid, a sticky protein. But there long has been a question whether this is a cause of the disease or a side effect. Also involved are tangles of a protein called tau; some scientists suspect this is the cause.
Now, researchers have caused Alzheimer's symptoms in rats by injecting them with one particular form of beta-amyloid. Injections with other forms of beta-amyloid did not cause illness, which may explain why some people have beta-amyloid plaque in their brains but do not show disease symptoms.
The findings by a team led by Dr. Ganesh M. Shankar and Dr. Dennis J. Selkoe of Harvard Medical School were reported in Sunday's online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.
"This study means we're beginning to clear the confusion on the exact mechanism and the way that Alzheimer's gets confirmed," said Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing editor of FOXNews.com.
"We knew that the brain of Alzheimer's patients had plaques of a sticky protein, but we also knew that in some patients who did not have Alzheimer's, you could see these plaques in the brain as well. And what this study has shown is that not all plaques are created equal. Even though they have a similar protein base, patients with Alzheimer's have a unique protein, which when you expose that to animals, scientists were able to replicate the symptoms in rats."
The researchers used extracts from the brains of people who donated their bodies to medicine.
Forms of soluble beta-amyloid containing different numbers of molecules, as well as insoluble cores of the brain plaque, were injected into the brains of mice. There was no detectable effect from the insoluble plaque or the soluble one-molecule or three-molecule forms, the researchers found.
But the two-molecule form of soluble beta-amyloid produced characteristics of Alzheimer's in the rats, they reported.
Those rats had impaired memory function, especially for newly learned behaviors. When the mouse brains were inspected, the density of brain cells was reduced by 47 percent with the beta-amyloid seeming to affect synapses, the connections between cells that are essential for communication between them.
The research, for the first time, showed the effect of a particular type of beta-amyloid in the brain, said Dr. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, director of the division of neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging, which helped fund the research.
It was surprising that only one of the three types had an effect, she said in a telephone interview.
Morrison-Bogorad said the findings may help explain the discovery of plaque in the brains of people who do not develop dementia. For some time, doctors have wondered why they find some brains in autopsy that are heavily coated with beta-amyloid, but the person did not have Alzheimer's.
The answer may lie in the two types of beta-amyloid that did not cause symptoms.
Now, the question is why one has the damaging effect and not others.
"A lot of work needs to be done," Morrison-Bogorad said. "Nature keeps sending us down paths that look straight at the beginning, but there are a lot of curves before we get to the end."
Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, said that "while more research is needed to replicate and extend these findings, this study has put yet one more piece into place in the puzzle that is Alzheimer's."
Alvarez said scientists can now begin to retrace how these plaques are formed in the first place and start to find new treatment options for preventing these plaques from forming in the first place.
In addition to the Institute on Aging, the research was funded by Science Foundation Ireland, Wellcome Trust, the McKnight and Ellison foundations and the Lefler Small Grant Fund.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.