WASHINGTON – Brain cells poisoned by Alzheimer’s disease don’t always die right away, says provocative new research that suggests it may one day be possible to save those sick cells and recover some memory.
Scientists watched in amazement as demented mice rapidly regained mental function after they were protected from a mutant protein named tau – even if a significant number of their brain cells already had died.
“We’d always thought the mental impairment was due to the loss of neurons,” explained lead researcher Karen Ashe, a University of Minnesota neurology professor. “What we’re showing is that there are neurons which are affected but not dead.”
Stop the poison and at least some of those neurons can recover, she reported Thursday in the journal Science.
The study is sure to open a long-awaited new front in Alzheimer’s research. Until now, scientists have focused mostly on a different brain protein, called beta-amyloid, that also wreaks havoc in patients’ brains. Ashe’s work shows they’ll need to focus on both culprits.
The study bolsters the notion that Alzheimer’s patients’ brains do contain three types of cells: healthy ones, dead ones, and sick ones, said William Thies, scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“If you can actually rescue some of these sick cells, that really brings the possibility of return of some function, which would be of tremendous value,” he said.