If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



A mystery molecule may help diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy

The hydrophobic molecule, found in tau filaments, may lead to a living diagnostic

by Megha Satyanarayana
March 23, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 12


A comparison of the folding patterns of a protein called tau in Alzheimer's disease and chronic traumatic encephelopathy.
Credit: Nature
Researchers have found a distinct folding pattern in tau filaments in people with CTE and Alzheimer's. In CTE, an important serine (S) and leucine (L) have different orientations, and the protein folds around an unknown hydrophobic molecule (purple).

Researchers have discovered an unusual folding pattern around an unknown hydrophobic molecule in the tau protein in the brains of a football player and two boxers who had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The team, led by Michel Goedert and Sjors H. W. Scheres of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, used different types of cryo-electron microscopy to determine that the protein folds and aggregates in distinct helical patterns, different from what is found in other neurodegenerative diseases, around a hydrophobic moiety (Nature 2019, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1026-5). Based on the location of the tau tangles, the researchers think the hydrophobic molecule may leak out of the blood during the repeat head trauma and inflammation that causes CTE. However, they don’t know what it is. Scheres suspects it may be a steroid or a fatty acid. The race is now on to identify the hydrophobic molecule and to find compounds that might displace it or destabilize tau folding or aggregation. Scheres also thinks the folding pattern will be detectable using imaging methods. Today, CTE can be conclusively diagnosed and studied only after someone has died.


This story was updated on March 28, 2019, to state that the technique used to study the protein aggregates was cryo-electron microscopy.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.