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From One Protein, Many Diseases

Depending on where tau tangles form in the brain, any of a number of types of dementia may occur.

WINTER 2014
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Among the two dozen known tauopathies, symptoms depend on where the tangles of tau protein occur and the type of neurons they affect. Here are four major examples.

DISEASE

SYMPTOMS

LOCATION

PREVALENCE

ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE

Memory difficulties; trouble solving problems; spatial/visual difficulties; social withdrawal; mood and personality changes; dementia.

Tau tangles start in the hippocampus and spread throughout the cerebral cortex. As neurons die, brain regions shrink. Deposits of amyloid-beta plaques are also a primary characteristic of the disease.

5.2 million Americans; likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years beyond age 65. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 50% to 80% of all dementias.

CORTICOBASAL DEGENERATION

Difficulties with balance and walking, short-term memory, muscle control, speech and comprehension; eventual inability to walk; dementia.

Neurons and glia—the connective tissue that supports nerve cells—degenerate in the cerebral cortex and basal ganglia, predominantly on one side of the brain.

1 in 20,000 people between the ages of 60 and 80; may be more common in women

FRONTOTEMPORAL DEMENTIA (FORMERLY PICK'S DISEASE)

Dramatic changes in behavior and personality; inability to speak and understand language; loss of inhibitions.

Abnormalities arise in tau biochemistry and some inclusions appear in the frontal and temporal lobes.

0,000 to 60,000 Americans, with a typical onset in their 50s and 60s; accounts for 2% to 5% of all dementias, but 20% or more of dementias in those under age 65.

PROGRESSIVE SUPRANUCLEAR PALSY

Problems with gait and balance; difficulty controlling eye movements; difficulty with speech; depression; forgetfulness.

Neurofibrillary tangles appear in structures in the brain stem, such as in the substantia nigra, which is also involved in Parkinson’s disease; both are characterized by similar motor problems.

20,000 Americans, or 1 in every 100,000 people over the age of 60; more common in men.

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Tangled Up in Tau

Yarn in tangles inside an illustrated human head

Trouble with the protein may underlie most kinds of dementia, perhaps including Alzheimer’s. New drugs could help.

An Avoidable Dementia

One tauopathy is entirely man-made, caused by concussions and other types of brain trauma.

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