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Biological Chemistry

Tau Protein May Drive Neurodegeneration After Brain Injury

Brain Disorders: One form of the phosphorylated protein spreads through the brain after trauma, according to a mouse study

by Michael Torrice
July 20, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 29

MIND-ALTERING
Brains of healthy people (left) show no signs of cis P-tau, while those of patients with traumatic brain injury had high levels of the protein (red).
Credit: Nature
Brain tissue from healthy people (left) shows no sign of cis P-tau, whereas samples from patients with traumatic brain injuries have high levels (right, red); blue indicates cell nuclei.

Athletes and military personnel can develop neurodegenerative diseases after repeated impacts or a single, severe blast that rattles their brain. A study in mice suggests that these traumatic brain injuries trigger the production of a protein called cis phosphorylated tau (cis P-tau) that then leads to progressive destruction of brain cells (Nature 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature14658). The team, led by Kun Ping Lu and Xiao Zhen Zhou of Harvard Medical School, found that the brains of people who suffer from injury-triggered neurodegenerative disorders have high levels of cis P-tau, whereas brains of healthy people show no signs of the protein. In addition, they found that injecting brain-injured mice with an antibody for cis P-tau lowers levels of the protein and leads to fewer risk-taking behaviors—a symptom of traumatic brain injuries in people—compared with animals that didn’t receive the antibody. Douglas H. Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury & Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, cautions that although the results are intriguing, mouse models of traumatic brain injuries don’t share some key signatures of the disease seen in people, which makes translating such findings to people uncertain.

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