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Gene May Protect Against Alzheimer's Disease

Results Provide Boost for Drugs in the Pipeline Targeting the Gene

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 11, 2012 -- Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?

A new study shows that researchers might be on the right path to someday make it happen. New research has identified a genetic mutation that may protect against both Alzheimer's disease and age-related declines in thinking and memory. And future drug treatments already in the pipeline may help prevent against both.

Amyloid protein plaques in the brain are seen in people with Alzheimer's disease. A gene for amyloid-beta precursor protein (APP) plays a key role in the formation of these plaques. Researchers from Reykjavik, Iceland, found that a mutation in this gene may help protect against Alzheimer's disease and age-related mental decline.

This mutation is rare, but, when present, confers about a 40% reduction in amyloid plaque-forming proteins. What's more, study participants between 80 to 100 years old without Alzheimer's disease who carry this mutation have better mental function than those without the mutation, the study shows.

The findings appear in Nature.

Alzheimer's disease affects memory and thinking. Symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen with time. One in eight older Americans has Alzheimer's disease, making it the most common type of dementia in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer's Association.

New Research Is on Target

U.S. Alzheimer's disease researchers are enthused about the new findings and what they may mean for prevention.

"This is an extraordinary paper," Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, says in an email. He is the Mount Sinai chair in Alzheimer's disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "This provides some of the strongest evidence ever that amyloid is the right target in Alzheimer's."

Many researchers are developing treatments that target amyloid protein. "Amyloid researchers the world over couldn't have asked for a better morale booster," he says. "This is a great gift to those at high risk for future development of Alzheimer's disease because this means our prevention trials are aiming at the right target."

But, "for those already suffering, this will have little benefit in terms of new drugs soon," Gandy says.

"This article is fascinating, as it supposes that there may be a spectrum of progression in Alzheimer's disease," says Richard Isaacson, MD. He is an associate professor of clinical neurology and the director of the Alzheimer's division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "We are learning more and more about the influence of genetics on cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease."

And "drugs that target these genes are already in the pipeline, but this study provides more verification that the path we are taking is the right one."

As researchers toil away at new treatments, certain lifestyle changes can help protect the brain and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease today, he says.

"There are several things we can do today and we have to fight Alzheimer's disease early," Isaacson says.

He recommends a risk reduction program including:

  • Regular physical activity
  • A Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and omega-3 fatty acids that are found in wild salmon, mackerel, and walnuts
  • Keeping the mind actively engaged
  • Maintaining strong social ties

SOURCES: Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, Mount Sinai chair in Alzheimer's disease research, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City. Alzheimer's Association: "Alzheimer's Facts and Figures." Richard Isaacson, MD, associate professor of clinical neurology; director, Alzheimer's division, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami. Jonsson, T. Nature, published online July 11, 2012.

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