Alzheimer’s disease is only one of the many neurodegenerative diseases caused by defects in the tau protein. Known as tauopathies, diseases in this category are usually caused when tau proteins, which help stabilize the structure of neurons, become defective, and instead, aggregate and tangle among themselves. Now, a new study finds that new antibody treatments could help prevent tau from accumulating, possibly setting the stage for new dementia treatments.

Using mice for their experiments, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis looked for antibodies that prevented cells from assisting in the accumulation process of tau. They identified three that worked particularly well, and infused them into the brains of the diseased mice. Three months later, the mice that were given the antibodies showed “markedly reduced” aggregation of the tau proteins and even had improved cognitive function, when compared to those that were given control antibodies that would have no effect on tau.

“We have identified anti-tau antibodies that can strongly reduce tau pathology, decrease tau accumulation, and improve cognitive function in a mouse model of a neurodegenerative disease called frontotemporal dementia,” Dr. David Holtzman, of the university, said in a statement.

Frontotemporal dementia is an umbrella term for a number of neurodegenerative diseases that shrink the frontal and temporal anterior lobes of the brain, such as Pick’s disease, primary progressive aphasia, and semantic dementia. It’s characterized by behavioral changes, speech and language problems, and movement disorders, according to Mayo Clinic.

The findings of this study, which were the first to directly infuse antibodies into diseased brains, provide some hope for dementia patients who struggle with everyday life. “In addition to the near-term implications for passive vaccination of patients, it suggests that therapies designed to target propagation of protein aggregation between cells could be very effective,” co-author Dr. Marc Diamond said in the statement.

Interestingly, tau has also been connected to the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases. A recent study found that properly functioning tau was able to prevent iron accumulation in the brain, which has been implicated in advancing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Such complexities contribute to the many reasons why the exact role of tau in neurodegenerative diseases continues to be a mystery.

Source: Holtzman D, Diamond M, Wozniak D, et al. Anti-Tau Antibodies that Block Tau Aggregate Seeding In Vitro Markedly Decrease Pathology and Improve Cognition In Vivo. Neuron. 2013.