A vaccine developed by University of New Mexico researchers has shown promise in preventing the formation of the tau tangles in the brain and someday potentially could prevent the cognitive decline typically seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease, they said.

Ph.D. candidate Nicole Maphis found that when the vaccine was given to mice bred to develop symptoms similar to those affecting humans with Alzheimer’s, they developed antibodies that cleared the tau protein from their brains. The response lasted for months.

“We’re excited by these findings, because they seem to suggest that we can use the body’s own immune system to make antibodies against these tangles, and that these antibodies actually bind and clear these tau tangles,” Maphis said.

Mice receiving the vaccine also performed better on maze-like tests than those that had not received it. MRI scans showed that the brains of the vaccinated animals had less shrinkage, which researchers said suggests that the vaccine prevented neurons from dying.

Also, significantly fewer tangles were found in both the cortex and the hippocampus – areas in the brain that are important for learning and memory, and which are destroyed in Alzheimer’s.

Findings were published in the journal NPJ Vaccines.

Maphis works in the lab of Associate Professor Kiran Bhaskar, Ph.D., who hopes to obtain funding so an injection potentially could be tested in humans. The process could take decades and cost millions of dollars, however, the researchers said.