Tau Protein Tangles & Microtubules: Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease

Look inside a neuron and explore mechanisms of cell death in Alzheimer’s: Tau protein tangles and microtubules at The Emergent Universe, an online interactive science museum about emergence.

The Trouble with Tau


Microtubules, thin molecular tubes that transport proteins along neurons’ branches and act as scaffolding for cells, are stabilized by a protein called tau. In Alzheimer’s, enzymes called kinases alter the chemical properties of tau, which then leaves the microtubules. The destabilized microtubules fall apart, contributing to neuron death.

Tau tangles

In Alzheimer’s the protein tau abandons its biochemical duties and aggregates into amyloid fibrils. These fibrils deposit as “neurofibrillary tangles” inside neurons, a characteristic marker noted by Alzheimer. And while tau’s misbehavior isn’t thought to initiate Alzheimer’s disease, evidence suggests that tau tangles do contribute to cell death.

Treatment Targets: Stopping Tau

Because the abnormal behaviors of tau are implicated in neuron death and memory loss, researchers are exploring therapeutic strategies for stopping them. Compounds are being considered to block the enzymes that alter tau and cause it to leave the microtubule walls, to stabilize microtubules in the absence of tau, and to prevent tau fibril formation.