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Alzheimer’s Disease: Tau Spreads in the Brain, Not Between People

  • - Dementia News
  • Feb 04, 2012
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Tags: | alzheimer | alzheimer disease | alzheimer's | alzheimers disease |

Tau tangles are one half of the twin hallmark pathologies of Alzheimer’s disease - the half that is most closely tied to the death of neurons. A study in the February 1 PLoS One offers evidence that the toxic forms of tau that cause these tangles spread throughout the brain by moving from one neuron to the next in a pattern that tracks anatomical synaptic connections of the earliest-hit nerve cells in the brain. This spread, the scientists found, recreates the typical disease progression usually observed in Alzheimer’s, starting in a part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex.

This work made the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. The Times article suggests that “Alzheimer’s disease seems to spread like an infection from brain cell to brain cell….” Such an analogy may be misleading to the public, experts caution, implying falsely that Alzheimer’s itself is contagious and can be passed between people.

In an Alzforum article posted today, reporter Tom Fagan takes apart this important scientific finding. Fagan puts it into the broader context of an emerging research trend, explains what it really means, and gets input from top experts in the field about why Alzheimer’s cannot be caught like a cold.

A study reported in the February 1 PLoS One offers an explanation for how tau pathology progresses in Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers led by Karen Duff and Scott Small at Columbia University, New York, made transgenic mice that express human mutant tau predominantly in layer 2 of the entorhinal cortex (ERC), the very region where tau pathology and neuron loss in AD begin. As the animals aged, tau pathology turned up first in the ERC, but then spread to regions of the brain that are innervated by ERC neurons, particularly the hippocampus. “The work leads to the conclusion that misfolded tau moves from one neuron to another, where it acts as a nidus for human and mouse tau to coaggregate,” said Bradley Hyman, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown. Researchers in Hyman’s lab obtained uncannily similar results that are under embargo at the journal Neuron until 23 February, Hyman told ARF. The anatomical spread of tau pathology is akin to that seen upon postmortem examination of human AD brains.

The work made the front page of The New York Times, which suggested that “Alzheimer’s disease seems to spread like an infection from brain cell to brain cell….” Every researcher Alzforum talked with quickly distanced themselves from the notion that AD is infectious. “The term sells newspapers, but it is very misleading,” said Marc Diamond, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. “That idea is not supported by these data in any way,” he told Alzforum. Duff agreed. “I would be very, very doubtful that that is a risk,” she said. Hyman said that, as a clinician, he has a much more restricted definition of infectivity. While researchers believe that misfolded, toxic forms of tau can corrupt normal tau molecules in a process called templated protein misfolding, “the notion that there is templated protein alteration is not the same as an infection,” Hyman told ARF. He noted that any protein in the body that forms an oligomer undergoes templated folding. This would include many proteins, such as, for example, hemoglobin. “The fact that this [tau] oligomer is not biologically useful does not make it infectious,” he said.

Hyman said he does not believe The New York Times meant to suggest that someone could catch AD by sitting on a crowded train. Even so, the idea that AD is infectious routinely crops up in lay media headlines as researchers uncover more evidence for propagation of misfolded proteins in the brain. As recently as last October, a scientific report that AD brain extracts induced amyloid plaques when injected into the brains of mice (see ARF related news story) led to press reports asking if Alzheimer’s was infectious or transmissible like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease (see, e.g., articles by CBS News, the U.K. Daily Mail, and the Huffington Post). A scientific study led by Mathias Jucker at the University of Tubingen, Germany, reporting that Aβ can spread from the periphery to the brain (see ARF related news story) spurred similar headlines (see and Cosmos Magazine).

Rumors that Alzheimer’s disease is infectious should be put to rest, said Lary Walker, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Walker was one of the first to investigate transmission of protein pathology in AD. He said he has already been contacted by people from all walks of life in response to The New York Times piece. He called for nuance in reporting the topic, and stressed that Duff’s paper never mentioned infection as a possibility. “Unless there is firm evidence for this, it should not be raised as an issue.” In essence, a pathologic protein spreading from one area of the body to another is a different story from an infectious agent spreading from person to person, researchers agree.

If the new research does not talk about infectivity, what does it say? “It confirms what we have been thinking for quite some time,” said Diamond. Namely, that toxic tau molecules can spread from cell to cell in the brain, and that the route they take tracks Braak staging of the disease, which is based on the progressive appearance of tau pathology in more and more regions of the brain, starting with the entorhinal cortex.

Diamond previously showed that tau, even though it is an intracellular protein, can be passed from one cell to another (see ARF related news story on Frost et al., 2009). “He deserves a lot of credit for starting this type of research in the tau field,” noted Duff. Other amyloidogenic proteins, such as ?-synuclein, can spread from cell to cell as well (see ARF related news story). Walker and Jucker found that amyloid-? spreads through the brain if miniscule amounts of aggregated protein are placed there by localized injection (see ARF related news story), and researchers led by Markus Tolnay at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and Michael Goedert at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, U.K., found that tau spreads in a similar fashion (see ARF related news story).

Duff’s and Hyman’s work show that the same thing can happen in the absence of an injection-by expressing mutant forms of human tau (P301L) in the brain. This has been done before, of course, but what these researchers did differently was to limit expression to layer 2 of the entorhinal cortex.

When the animals reached 10-11 months of age, first author Li Liu and colleagues in Duff’s lab noticed tau aggregates in the ERC. By 22 months, hyperphosphorylated, abnormal tau had spread to the hippocampus, including its subiculum subregion, some pyramidal cells of its CA1 region, and granule cells of the dentate gyrus, which also belongs to the hippocampal formation. The question then became whether the protein in the hippocampus came from the ERC, or if it might have been made in situ due to leaky expression of the tau transgene. Indeed, the peer reviewers of both manuscripts insisted on proof that this was not the reason for the finding, and both labs took steps to eliminate it. Liu used laser capture microscopy to isolate hippocampal cells and amplify their RNA to see if any human tau transcripts were present. They did find some, but felt they were insufficient to explain the amount of human tau protein present. Hyman’s lab took a similar approach, plus also directly compared protein and mRNA in cells of the ERC. As they explained on a poster at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting last fall (see Polydoro et al., 2011), some ERC cells that tested positive for human tau protein were negative for human tau RNA, suggesting the protein had spread locally from other ERC cells that did express the transgene. “Between both of us, we feel we have tried really hard to rule out artifactual possibilities, leading us to conclude that misfolded human tau is able to move from neuron to neuron,” said Hyman. Duff agreed. “Coupled with Brad’s data, we are very confident that we have the right interpretation,” she told Alzforum.

Questions still remain. How does tau spread from cell to cell? Is tau secreted? Passed through tunneling nanotubes? “All kinds of explanations have been proposed,” said Duff. She plans to study this transfer in vitro and in organotypic tissue culture that preserves the connectivity going from the ERC to the hippocampal formation.

Another major question is whether templated misfolding truly occurs. Diamond said that is still unclear. He suggested that stress on hippocampal neurons resulting from dysfunctional innervation from the ERC could create conditions for local tau aggregation. Jucker raised the same issue in an e-mail to ARF. One sign of templated misfolding would be if the human tau had corrupted the endogenous mouse protein. Hyman said that, in their hands, tau aggregates in the hippocampus comprise both human and mouse tau, indicating that templated misfolding occurs. “If that is the case, then I might be convinced,” wrote Jucker, “but we have to wait to see the paper.”

Do these findings have practical benefit? The anatomical progression of tau pathology in AD-and that of other neurodegenerative proteins, for that matter-has long been a bit of a mystery. Is it due to different vulnerabilities of different brain regions to tau toxicity? Or to spread of toxic tau along routes of anatomic connectivity? This work suggests the latter. “The corollary is that if you could prevent tangles from affecting additional brain areas, you might be able to suppress what we take as a given, which is that the disease progresses,” said Hyman. “Now we have a model system to test that.”-Tom Fagan.

Liu L, Drouet V, Wu JW, Witter MP, Small SC, Clelland C, Duff K. Trans-synaptic spread of tau pathology in vivo. PLoS One. 2012; 7:e31302.


The etiology of Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown. Because the disease is specific for human brain, a rational search for early diagnosis or prevention is very difficult. This calls for the development of cellular models that mimick the degeneration of neurons in AD. The brains of AD patients contain markers whose composition and location is characteristic of the disease; one of the most reliable markers is tau protein in its pathologically phosphorylated and aggregated form. This form of tau can serve as a guide to the origins of the pathology. One goal of research that should be feasible within the near future is to construct a cell that induces the same abnormal changes in tau protein in response to defined stimuli (extracellular signals, toxins, stress, etc.). This model can then be used to identify possible substances that might cause the disease, or identify strategies for preventing it. Once they are defined on a cellular level, the next step would be to test them on (transgenic) animal models which are being developed at present.

Tau protein and Alzheimer’s disease.
Mandelkow EM, Mandelkow E.
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Research Institute, Hamburg, Germany.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is characterized histopathologically by numerous neurons with neurofibrillary tangles and neuritic (senile) amyloid-beta (Abeta) plaques, and clinically by progressive dementia. Although Abeta is the primary trigger of AD according to the amyloid cascade hypothesis, neurofibrillary degeneration of abnormally hyperphosphorylated tau is apparently required for the clinical expression of this disease. Furthermore, while approximately 30% of normal aged individuals have as much compact plaque burden in the neocortex as is seen in typical cases of AD, in several tauopathies, such as cortical basal degeneration and Pick’s disease, neurofibrillary degeneration of abnormally hyperphosphorylated tau in the absence of Abeta plaques is associated with dementia. To date, all AD clinical trials based on Abeta as a therapeutic target have failed. In addition to the clinical pathological correlation of neurofibrillary degeneration with dementia in AD and related tauopathies, increasing evidence from in vitro and in vivo studies in experimental animal models provides a compelling case for this lesion as a promising therapeutic target. A number of rational approaches to inhibiting neurofibrillary degeneration include inhibition of one or more tau protein kinases, such as glycogen synthase kinase-3beta and cyclin-dependent protein kinase 5, activation of the major tau phosphatase protein phosphatase-2A, elevation of beta-N-acetylglucosamine modification of tau through inhibition of beta-N-acetylglucosaminidase or increase in brain glucose uptake, and promotion of the clearance of the abnormally hyperphosphorylated tau by autophagy or the ubiquitin proteasome system.

Source: Alzheimer Research Forum Foundation

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