Concern raised that seminal Alzheimer's research tampered with data

A six-month investigation by the journal Science has reported “shockingly blatant" evidence of data tampering in the seminal piece of research that proposed that Alzheimer's is caused by a build-up of amyloid protein plaques in the brain.

Brain plaques wasted investment

The initial study, which was carried out by the University of Minnesota and published in 2006 in the journal Nature, claimed that scientists had discovered a type of amyloid protein that brought on dementia when injected into juvenile mice. It was the first time that a substance in brain tissue that may cause memory impairment was identified. This hypothesis has dominated subsequent research into the disease, with the paper becoming one of the most cited on the subject, and huge sums of money have been allocated to research into drugs capable of removing brain plaques.

has the potential to mislead an entire field of research

However, the Science investigation claims to have discovered evidence that images relied on to support the conclusions were manipulated by piecing together photographs from different experiments.

Issues with the research were originally spotted by neuroscientist Dr Matthew Schrag of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, who noticed anomalies while involved in a separate investigation into an experimental Alzheimer’s drug.

In a whistleblower report to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr Schrag warned that the research “has the potential to mislead an entire field of research”. 

The journal Science, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, looked separately into his claims, and said its own investigation “provided strong support for Schrag’s suspicions”.

Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: “These allegations are extremely serious.”

“While we haven't seen all of the published findings that have been called into question, any allegation of scientific misconduct needs to be investigated and dealt with where appropriate.”

“Researchers need to be able to have confidence in the findings of their peers, so they can continue to make progress for people affected by diseases like dementia.”

She described the amyloid protein as being 'at the centre of the most influential theory of how Alzheimer's disease develops in the brain'.

Dr Imarisio said: “But the research that has been called into question is focused on a very specific type of amyloid. These allegations do not compromise the vast majority of knowledge built up during decades of research into the role of this protein in the disease.”

Nature is investigating the concerns and will provide an editorial response at a later date.

The authors of the original paper claim they “still have faith” that amyloid beta plaques play a major role in Alzheimer's and defend their original findings. 

A University of Minnesota spokesman said: “The university will follow its processes to review the questions any claims have raised. At this time, we have no further information to provide.”

A compound similar to starch, which can build up abnormally in the tissues in a condition called amyloidosis. Full medical glossary
Decline in mental capacity, brain functioning and memory that affects day-to-day living. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
Prefix suggesting a deficiency, lack of, or small size. Full medical glossary
Any flat, raised patch; for example, a raised patch on the skin, fatty deposit in the inner wall of an artery, or layer over the surface of a tooth. Full medical glossary
Compounds that form the structure of muscles and other tissues in the body, as well as comprising enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
A group of cells with a similar structure and a specialised function. Full medical glossary