✍️ Author: Dr Eleni Christoforidou
🕒 Approximate reading time: 5 minutes
The tau protein, while playing an essential role in the healthy functioning of neurons, is also a central player in various neurodegenerative diseases when things go awry. This blog post will explore the dual nature of tau proteins, highlighting their role in normal brain functioning and how their dysregulation can contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and other tauopathies.
The Healthy Role of Tau Proteins
Tau proteins are primarily located in neurons, the cells responsible for transmitting signals in the brain. One of their key roles is to stabilise microtubules, tubular structures that act like a transportation network for nutrients and other essential materials within cells. By doing so, tau proteins facilitate the efficient functioning of neurons and maintain their structure.
Tau and Neurodegeneration
However, problems arise when tau proteins become hyperphosphorylated. Phosphorylation, the process of attaching phosphate groups to proteins, is a common way of regulating protein function. In the case of tau, however, excessive phosphorylation can cause it to detach from the microtubules and clump together, forming neurofibrillary tangles - a hallmark of several neurodegenerative diseases.
In Alzheimer's disease, for instance, these tangles accumulate inside neurons, disrupting the cell's transport system and eventually leading to cell death. Furthermore, the presence of tau tangles appears to correlate with cognitive decline in Alzheimer's, suggesting a crucial role in disease progression.
Beyond Alzheimer's: Other Tauopathies
Tau dysregulation is not limited to Alzheimer's disease. Other neurodegenerative conditions, collectively known as tauopathies, are also characterised by the abnormal accumulation of tau proteins. This includes conditions like frontotemporal dementia, progressive supranuclear palsy, and corticobasal degeneration.
Moving Forward: Tau as a Therapeutic Target
Given tau's central role in various neurodegenerative diseases, it has become a promising target for therapeutic intervention. Several strategies are being explored, including drugs that inhibit tau phosphorylation, promote its clearance, or prevent its aggregation. While it's still early days, these avenues hold promise for the development of effective treatments for tauopathies.
To summarise, the tau protein plays an essential role in the healthy functioning of neurons, but its dysregulation can lead to several neurodegenerative diseases. Understanding tau's dual nature could be key to developing effective therapies for these debilitating conditions.