Decoding the pathology of Alzheimer’s

December 13, 2021

Since amyloid beta and tau were first discovered more than 100 years ago, scientists have been trying to understand their role in Alzheimer’s disease and how modulating genetic risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s can address the disease. Dominic Walsh, Ph.D., head of Biogen’s Neurodegeneration Research Unit on Alzheimer’s Disease research.


Alzheimer’s disease gets its name from Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906, presented a paper in Tübingen, at a psychiatry conference.

He linked the clinical syndrome with the pathology that he saw in the lab. A lot of the basic research in Alzheimer’s disease traces back to that discovery 100 years ago of what the pathology of the disease was. There are two principal proteins that are involved, amyloid beta protein and tau protein.

Each of those constitutes the pathological hallmarks of the disease. Much of our research is founded on understanding how those proteins play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. On top of that we’ve learned a lot of new discoveries that have occurred in the last decade or so, with genetic identification of risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.

As it would turn out, many of those risk factors actually home in on the amyloid beta protein and tau. So much of our work is focused on understanding how these proteins play a role in this disease, and how the genetic risk factors modify that risk.

We can look to see if we modulate some of these risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease such as TREM2 and whether or not we can clear the amyloid or clear the tangles in the form of tau and whether or not we can change the inflammatory response to the amyloid in the tau.

I think a lot of young scientists, when you start off, you don’t start off with any particular plan, and it was pure serendipity and interest that drew me into Alzheimer’s disease.

I was able to work with a guy who was the first person to ever extract amyloid from the brains of an individual with Alzheimer’s disease. His name was David Allsop. I learned a huge amount from him, and with that kind of base, it opened doors for me to work with other distinguished leaders in the Alzheimer’s space, and then I kind of got stuck with it because this was something that I really got excited about.

I was involved in the early days of modern Alzheimer’s disease research, and it’s just something that has become almost like an addiction for me – I need to see it through to the end.

Dominic Walsh, Ph.D., Vice President and head of Biogen’s Neurodegeneration Research Unit

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