Revealing roles of dementia proteins in normal memory

New research has revealed how the tau protein, a critical element in the formation of Alzheimer’s disease, is also involved in normal learning processes in the healthy brain — potentially providing a focal point for future drug therapies.

In the study, published in The EMBO Journal, Flinders University researchers have provided new insights into the tau protein, whose role has long been enigmatic, finding it may help molecular processes of memory formation.

Employing a sensitive method named proximity labelling, the team aimed to identify all proteins that tau comes in contact with within brain cells, labelling and identifying the whole collection of interacting proteins as they went.

Looking at the collection of proteins that interact with tau, and which specific functions these interactions support, the researchers found that while tau binds to proteins supporting brain cell structure, it also interacted with proteins that control vesicles and cell surface receptors for neurotransmitters, both necessary for learning and memory in the brain.

“Our new study took a snapshot of all partners tau engages with to support normal brain function,” says senior study author Dr Arne Ittner, Senior Research Fellow in Neuroscience in the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute.

“Out of a wealth of partners, we identified one enzyme that critically controls neurotransmitter sensors. This enzyme, called NSF, is inhibited by tau, particularly in Alzheimer’s.”

Changes in the connections between brain cells, called synapses, underly the processes involved in formation and retention of memory. These changes happen at the molecular level and help us store and retrieve memories, such as places visited or of loved ones.

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