Winter 2017

Not giving up

University of Minnesota neuroscientist Karen Hsiao Ashe has spent her career trying to end Alzheimer's disease.
Photography by Brady Willette

How can we stop Alzheimer’s disease? It’s a question that has challenged University of Minnesota neuroscientist Karen Hsiao Ashe for her entire career.

Ashe, who is founding director of the U’s N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care, and her team narrowed in on the protein tau as the likely culprit for the disease about 12 years ago.

Although tau is part of a healthy body, it changes and clumps together irregularly in people who have Alzheimer’s.

In a new study of mice modeling human Alzheimer’s disease, the team looked for a mechanism that could be affecting tau and found that caspase–2, a naturally occurring enzyme, may be to blame. The researchers also discovered that caspase–2 “cuts” healthy tau at a particular point, allowing it to travel to and accumulate in the neurons’ “antennae” or dendritic spines. 

By reducing levels of the enzyme or preventing it from cutting tau entirely, Ashe believes it may be possible to recover memory or even restore cognition. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Thomas M. Grossman Family Charitable Trust, Beverly N. Grossman, and Karin L. Moe.

“The faith that people have in us is really, really important, and it translates into inspiration and working harder and being creative and not giving up,” Ashe says.