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Fluorescent compounds shed light on Alzheimer's disease

New class of imaging agents enables clinicians to watch the progression of Alzheimer's disease in real time in the brains of living patients.

Tau lesions and senile plaques -- hallmark indicators of Alzheimer's disease -- are visible via fluorescent compounds. Maruyama et al/Neuron

Deep within the brains of patients with Alzheimer's, tau proteins huddle together and get all tangled up, while bits and pieces of another protein called amyloid beta form plaques. These are telltale signs of the development of the disease, but they've proved tricky to spy on.

Now, researchers are hoping that their newly-developed class of imaging agents that affords them a clear view of these tau protein aggregates will shed light on the progression of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases in living patients.

In their latest work on mice and humans, researchers were able to develop fluorescent compounds that bind to the tau proteins and then view them using positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Reporting in the Sept. 18 issue of the journal Neuron, they write that they were able to watch the spread of tau tangles in the brain and that this spread correlated directly with the progression of moderate Alzheimer's disease.

These tau tangles are a known hallmark of Alzheimer's, but until now haven't been able to be visualized easily in living patients. And while the imaging tech currently exists to monitor the plaques from the protein amyloid beta, the tau tangles "are known to be more intimately associated with neuronal loss than senile plaques," senior author Dr. Makoto Higuchi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan said, in a news release.

If doctors and clinicians are ultimately able to visualize all the processes that occur in the brain as Alzheimer's and similar diseases develop and progress, it would dramatically help not only diagnose the diseases earlier but help monitor and treat them as well.