The brain is made up of approximately 100 billion neurons. The neurons specialized in transmitting neuro-electric impulses are composed of the soma, and a single extension called the axon. Within this extension is a structure called a cytoskeleton. This network has two main functions: the transport of nutrients and the maintenance of the neuronal system.
The cytoskeleton has three main components: neurofilaments, microfilaments, and microtubules. Different types of proteins intervene to stabilize the system. In particular, the microtubules are stabilized by the binding of TAU protein. This stabilization allows the continuity of the system, vital for the elimination of undesirable proteins and toxins.
But TAU has other functions. In addition to cleaning, it helps regulate the axial transport of nutrients and contributes to neurogenesis (formation of new neurons). It also intervenes in the regulation of several signaling routes towards the neuronal interior and in the establishment of the neuronal polarity (this polarity gives sense to the flow of information).
In its normal state, the protein possesses in its structure a certain number of phosphorylations (irreversible chemical modifications). When these phosphorylations exceed standard limits, the protein is grouped into what are known as neurofibrillary tangles. The main consequence of the tangles is the destabilization of the microtubules, and therefore the continuity of the flow through the cytoskeleton is compromised. This discontinuity prevents the correct elimination of waste from the neural network, causing debris to accumulate within the axon.
TAU and Alzheimer's
Once the connectivity of the microtubules is compromised, the neuron loses the ability to eliminate neurofibrillary tangles and proteins such as beta-amyloid. At one point, the cell invariably dies. As more and more cells die, Alzheimer's symptoms begin to appear. The risk of this disorder tends to increase with age, and that is why from the age of 65 people are more likely to suffer this type of condition.
Although several studies analyze and seek answers regarding the origin of the disease, and the role of TAU within the degenerative cycle that leads to the disorder, it is necessary to continue efforts to achieve a path to deal with the illness. Today, at least 40 million people worldwide suffer from this condition. But this number may increase significantly in the next few years in some regions of the world, such as Europe, where the majority of the population is over 50 years old.
Efforts can also contribute to addressing other conditions. Tangles of TAU also appear in other neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia accompanied by parkinsonism, progressive supranuclear palsy, and frontotemporal dementia. Although genetic studies have allowed a better understanding of the origin of the intracellular deposits of tau protein, many questions remain unanswered. It is hoped that future research will lead to a better understanding of its mechanisms, and to the establishment of therapeutic ways that will allow the process to be stopped and ideally reversed.
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