A team of researchers has found a way to measure tau levels in the blood. The method accurately reflects levels of tau in the brain that correlate with neurological damage. The study, in mice and a small group of people, could be the first step toward a noninvasive test for tau.
The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.
The researchers say that such a test potentially could be used to quickly screen for tau-based diseases, monitor disease progression and measure the effectiveness of treatments designed to target tau.
Tau is a normal brain protein involved in maintaining the structure of neurons. But when tau forms tangles, it damages and kills nearby neurons. A blood-based screening test, likely years away, would be a relatively easy way to identify people whose symptoms may be due to problems with tau, without subjecting them to potentially invasive, expensive or complicated tests.
In the brain, most tau proteins are inside cells, some are in tangles, and the remainder float in the fluid between cells. Such fluid constantly is being washed out of the brain into the blood, and tau comes with it. However, the protein is cleared from the blood almost as soon as it gets there, so the levels, while detectable, typically remain very low.
The team reasoned that if they could keep tau in the blood longer, the protein would accumulate to measurable levels. Allowing the protein to accumulate before measuring its levels would magnify – but not distort – differences between individuals, in the same way that enlarging a picture of a grain of sand alongside a grain of rice does not change the relative size of the two, but does make it easier to measure the difference between them.
The researchers injected a known amount of tau protein directly into the veins of mice and monitored how quickly the protein disappeared from the blood. The researchers showed that half the protein normally disappears in less than nine minutes. When they added an antibody that binds to tau, the half-life of tau was extended to 24 hours.
To determine whether the antibody could amplify tau levels in an animal’s blood high enough to be measured easily, they injected the antibody into mice. Within two days, tau levels in the mice’s blood went up into the easily detectable range. The antibody acted like a magnifying glass, amplifying tau levels so that differences between individuals could be seen more easily.
Tau levels in people’s blood also rose dramatically in the presence of the antibody. The researchers administered the antibody to four people with a tau disease known as progressive supranuclear palsy. Their blood levels of tau rose 50- to 100-fold within 48 hours.
Measuring tau levels in the blood is only useful if it reflects tau levels in the brain, where the protein does its damage, the researchers said.
Both high and low levels of tau in the fluid that surrounds the brain could be a danger sign. Alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic encephalopathy both are associated with high levels of soluble tau, whereas progressive supranuclear palsy and other genetic tau diseases are thought to be associated with low levels.
To see whether elevated brain tau is reflected in the blood, the researchers treated mice with a chemical that injures neurons. The chemical causes tau to be released from the dying neurons, thereby raising tau levels in the fluid surrounding the cells. The scientists saw a corresponding increase of tau in the blood in the presence of the anti-tau antibody.
Paper: “Anti-tau antibody administration increases plasma tau in transgenic mice and patients with tauopathy”
Reprinted from materials provided by Washington University School of Medicine.