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Nation/World

November 14, 2012

New gene triples risk for Alzheimer's disease

Scientists have identified a new gene variant that seems to strongly raise the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, giving a fresh target for research into treatments for the mind-robbing disorder.

The problem gene is not common — less than 1 percent of people are thought to have it — but it roughly triples the chances of developing Alzheimer’s compared to people with the normal version of the gene. It also seems to harm memory and thinking in older people without dementia.

The main reason scientists are excited by the discovery is what this gene does, and how that might reveal what causes Alzheimer’s and ways to prevent it. The gene helps the immune system control inflammation in the brain and clear junk such as the sticky deposits that are the hallmark of the disease. Mutations in the gene may impair these tasks, so treatments to restore the gene’s function and quell inflammation may help.

“It points us to potential therapeutics in a more precise way than we’ve seen in the past,” said Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, which had no role in the research. Years down the road, this discovery will likely be seen as very important, he predicted.

It is described in a study by an international group published online yesterday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

About 35 million people worldwide have dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common type. In the U.S., about 5 million have Alzheimer’s. Medicines such as Aricept and Namenda just temporarily ease symptoms. There is no known cure.

Until now, only one gene — ApoE — has been found to have a big impact on Alzheimer’s risk. About 17 percent of the population has at least one copy of the problem version of this gene but nearly half of all people with Alzheimer’s do. Other genes that have been tied to the disease raise risk only a little, or cause the less common type of Alzheimer’s that develops earlier in life, before age 60.

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