New Imaging Technique Could Help with Future Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

tau imaging in Alzheimer's diseaseGlobally, 47.5 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the build-up of the proteins beta-amyloid and tau in the brain. Beta-amyloid plaque has been studied with the use of the positron emission tomography (PET) scan, while few methods have existed for scientists to study the build-up of tau protein. A recently published study in the Science Translational Medicine announced that new tau imaging agents will help scientists further study tau’s role in Alzheimer’s.

In a cognitively healthy individual, tau transports nutrients and energy along nerve fibers in the brain. When tau builds up, it breaks down into distorted strands that are no longer able to transport nutrients effectively. These twisted strands are known as neurofibrillary tangles, and these tangles have been closely linked with the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers from the Washington University in St. Louis tested the cognitive performance of 46 older adults and found that 36 were cognitively normal while ten had mild Alzheimer’s disease. They performed PET scans using the new tau imaging agents and found that cognitively normal participants had very few tau tangles, while the Alzheimer’s group had more tau tangles in the temporal lobe and cerebral cortex.

The research team also took cerebrospinal fluid measures of tau and found that these measures correlated more closely with tau deposition in the temporal lobe. Tau deposition in this area has been more closely linked to the status of dementia and is a better predictor of cognitive performance than beta-amyloid. The temporal lobe of the brain is heavily involved in sensory processing, visual memories, language comprehension and emotional understanding.

Overall, the study found that tau imaging predicts the status of Alzheimer’s disease more accurately than beta-amyloid imaging does. Previous studies have investigated the whole progression of Alzheimer’s disease in living participants using tau imaging. Beta-amyloid imaging, on the other hand, more accurately predicts the early disease state of Alzheimer’s and is a better diagnosis tool. The tau imaging tool, however, is still in the testing phase.

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