Aberdeen University researchers have solved a long-standing “puzzle” about Alzheimer’s that could help improve diagnosis and treatment.
The team is the first in the world to show that two molecules thought to be involved in the disease are present together in the brain at very early stages.
Its work, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, has implications for the development of new drugs and for spotting problems more quickly.
Led by Dr David Koss and Professor Bettina Platt, the project used human brain samples provided by the ‘Brains for Dementia Research’ campaign.
It was set up by charities to address a severe shortage of tissue by encouraging the public to donate their brains for research when they die.
The scientists developed new ways to study the proteins – tau and amyloid – to see how each contributed to the development of the disease.
Their surprise findings, published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, confounded previous studies by finding them both in the same part of the brain at an early stage.
Professor Platt said they had established a new benchmark for pathological investigations.
She said: “Therefore, a long-standing puzzle in the field of dementia research has now been resolved to a large extent.
“It has long been assumed that Alzheimer’s-related changes within the brain occur long before symptoms are evident, but so far reliable methods to detect these were elusive.
“However, we have managed to modify experimental procedures in a way that we can now very sensitively determine when and where these proteins appear, and the big surprise was that they both appear together very early on, and in the same brain area.
Dr Koss added: “The entire research community is in agreement that it is a primary challenge to identify Alzheimer’s disease early.
“Our findings will go some way to help achieve this though ultimately it will be up to the scientific community to further evaluate and build upon these results.”
Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “These proteins have long-puzzled scientists.
“Understanding which forms of tau and amyloid drive the early stages of Alzheimer’s will allow scientists to design drugs to target these specific forms and find new ways to accurately diagnose people.”