Scientists: This Cell Part Could Be Key to Stopping the Spread of Alzheimer's Disease

A plastinated human brain is on display at the Casino de la Exposicion cultural center on the eve of the opening of the exhibition “Animals Inside Out,” in Seville, Spain, on November 30, 2017. Figuring out how Alzheimer’s disease spreads is vital to figuring out how to stop it. Cristina Quickler/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists believe that buildup of a brain protein called amyloid beta is the root of Alzheimer's disease, but exactly how this disease spreads throughout the brain remains unclear. Now, new research believes it may have found the answer, suggesting that a cell previously thought to play a role in waste removal is actually the key to the spread of Alzheimer's in the brain.

The study, published online in Acta Neuropathologica, used brain samples from deceased patients with Alzheimer's disease and control patients who died with a healthy brain. They looked specifically at parts of the cell called exosomes. These cell parts are small membrane-covered droplets that help to remove cell waste products, a press release reported. However, closer examination revealed the cell part may also play an important part in Alzheimer's disease ability to spread throughout the brain.

For their research, the team noted this cell part was physically capable of transporting amyloid beta from one cell to another. To observe this, researchers took cells from Alzheimer's disease patients and watched as they absorbed exosomes and then passed amyloid beta to new cells.

"The cells that absorbed exosomes that contained amyloid beta became diseased," said study author Martin Hallbeck, associate professor in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine at Linköping University, in a statement.

They were also able to reduce the spread of amyloid beta by compromising the exosomes. In addition, the researchers found more amyloid beta in exosomes from brains affected by Alzheimer's disease than in healthy controls.

"Taken together, our results imply that exosomes are centrally involved in Alzheimer's disease and that they could serve as targets for development of new diagnostic and therapeutic principles," the study reads.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, amyloid beta is a small part of a larger protein that can stick together and build up in the brain. A common theory on the cause of Alzheimer's disease is that this buildup can disrupt brain cell communication and interfere with normal brain function. Researchers believe this buildup may lead to many of the hallmark signs of Alzheimer's disease, such as cognition problems.

The team was able to reduce the spread of amyloid beta in cells extracted from deceased brains, and hope this finding could be developed to help them do the same in living patients. However, more research is needed before this can be done.