Research on Alzheimer’s has mainly focused on Caucasians. New findings, however, suggest the disease process that leads to dementia may differ in African–Americans. According to a study published [January 7] in JAMA Neurology, the brains of African–Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have less buildup of a protein called tau—one of the two hallmark proteins that characterize the disease.
It is not clear why African–Americans would have less tau while still suffering from Alzheimer’s, says neurologist John Morris, who led the research. But the finding is significant because it means the medical community needs to exercise caution when defining Alzheimer’s by measures of tau buildup alone. The study also suggests race might affect other aspects of the disease’s pathology.
The study also found that a variant of a gene called APOE4, which confers a high risk of Alzheimer’s in whites, seemed to be less of a peril for African–Americans. The latter tended to have much lower tau levels if they had the APOE4 variant, suggesting they suffered less neurological damage because of the lesser tau exposure.
If lower levels of the tau protein mean a patient has less Alzheimer’s-related damage to the brain, as research suggests, African–Americans with these relatively low levels might be more responsive to drugs that are being developed to attack amyloid.
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