DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – It’s being called the “big bang” breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research. Doctors at UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute have detected what they believe are changes in a single molecule that could act as the starting point for the deadly, memory-stealing disease.

Scientists are fairly certain that a molecule called “tau” is the culprit.

“When the protein is in its good form, the reactive portions are hidden,” said Mark Diamond, M.D, at UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute. “When it transitions to bad form, the bad parts get exposed and allow the protein to assemble on itself, sort of like a Lego.”

Dr. Diamond, also director of UT Southwestern’s Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases and a leading dementia expert, said the ability to detect these molecular changes is his most significant finding in some 15 years of research.

“The goal of what we’re doing right now is to develop tests that will diagnose the problem before there’s a disease…to pick up the first changes that are happening in someone’s brain before there are any symptoms,” said Dr. Diamond.

Alzheimer’s is characterized by clumps of tangled protein in the brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors will die of the disease — and that’s more than breast and prostate cancer combined.

Ultimately, researchers hope that warning signals for the disease can be effectively detected and therefore prevented with something as simple as a vaccine or pill.

“I anticipate a day when we will think about these diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as problems that only people who don’t get medical care develop,” said Dr. Diamond.

Researchers know that there is much work ahead. It could be several years before the discovery is ready for human clinical trials. Until then, supporters say it’s critical for lawmakers to fund research at all levels.

Patients can also get involved in local studies so doctors can learn as much as they can from seniors as they age. And while the advances won’t happen overnight, doctors say the overriding message for the community in the discovery is that there is hope.

“There’s tremendous hope!” said Dr. Diamond. “We are actually super excited in our field. When I look at the future, I see many, many opportunities for good shots on goal.”

And if he’s right, the discovery could be a life-changing win for the world.

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