If you or someone close to you is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it's likely you’ve heard of tau proteins. They're troublesome little compounds that often build up in the brain and lead to the development of various cognitive difficulties. However, according to a new study, a genetically engineered molecule is able to clear up these pesky compounds, and perhaps even reverse some of their effects on the brain.

In the study, injections of the lab-made compound, tau antisense oligonucleotides, into the brains of mice prevented tau from clustering in the brains of young mice and also reversed tau clustering in older mice. In addition, the study reported that older mice given these injections lived longer and had healthier brains than mice who were given a placebo. Older mice given the compound also demonstrated better cognitive skills and did not lose the ability to build nests.

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"These results open a promising new door," said Margaret Sutherland, Ph.D., program director at NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), in a statement. "They suggest that antisense oligonucleotides may be effective tools for tackling tau-associated disorders."

Tau antisense oligonucleotides are genetically engineered to block a cell's assembly line production of tau. Although tau proteins are normally produced by the body, for reasons still unknown, in some cases they clump together and form tangles. These tangles are some of the characteristic traits found in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In the study, the team noted that the antisense oligonucleotides were able to turn off the genes associated with tau production in mice.

For the research, mice were genetically engineered to create higher than normal levels of tau proteins. As a result of this trait, these mice developed neurological problems and died earlier than control mice. However, the antisense oligonucleotides were able to quell tau production, and “literally help untangle the brain damage caused by tau," explained lead study author Timothy Miller, in a statement.

At the moment, the research is restricted to animal test subjects, and it could take many more years before a suitable drug could be developed for human use. However, these results are exciting, and suggest that Alzheimer’s is both preventable and reversible. According to a recent statement, researchers are currently conducting early-phase clinical trials on the safety and effectiveness of antisense oligonucleotides designed to treat several neurological disorders, including Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Source: DeVos Sl, Miller RL, Schoch KM. Tau reduction prevents neuronal loss and reverses pathological tau deposition and seeding in mice with tauopathy. Science Translational Medicine . 2017

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