Understanding the cause of Alzheimer’s is critically important to ever finding a cure, or even a way to slow its progression. That’s why hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year researching the underlying causes of the disease.

New research out of the Mayo Clinic, however, suggests that much of this research has been misguided.

The Complicated Cause of Alzheimer’s

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Alzheimer’s is a difficult disease to understand, even for the most gifted medical minds of our time. But essentially, Alzheimer’s is believed to be caused by bad proteins building up in our brain.

Up until now, most scientists believed the primary driver of Alzheimer’s to be amyloid, because it has been shown to build up in the brain as the disease worsens. But by studying over 3,600 brains the Mayo scientists believe that it is actually another protein entirely, tau, that is causing the bulk of the damage.

The relationship between the two proteins and the decline in cognitive functioning is confusing because the two tend to clump together. Over time the clumps build up inside and outside brain cells, causing them to function improperly and eventually die. Yet, it remains difficult to figure out which protein to blame, or if both are the consequence of a third unknown cause.

The Experiment and the Conclusions

The details are tricky to understand, but the researchers essentially looked through a brain bank of thousands of donated brains and found that tau accumulation is strongly linked to when brain functioning starts to decline and with how well it functions overall. The correlation between amyloid proteins and cognitive decline, on the other hand, was found to be nonexistent, once the effect of tau buildup was factored in.

Yet, this doesn’t end the debate and a lot more research needs to be done to prove anything definitively. But it does suggest that all that research money might be better spent looking in an area that has previously been downplayed.

Check out the full, technical article at lifescience.com

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