The Australian component of the research team from Menzies Research Institute Tasmania and University of Queensland found that genes could increase a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease up to 20 years before clinical symptoms become apparent.
The landmark finding is said to provide hope for more than 35.6 million people worldwide who currently live with Alzheimer’s disease.
Research team leader, Associate Professor Velandai Srikanth from the Stroke and Ageing Research Group of Monash University’s Southern Clinical School, said analysing data from more than 9,000 people using advanced brain imaging and genetic analysis led to the breakthrough.
“Our study makes a major contribution to the body of knowledge available and will stimulate further work in identifying disease mechanisms and potentially new treatments for the widespread disease,” A/Prof Srikanth said.
“We investigated what new genetic markers there might be to explain why the hippocampus shrinks and have discovered a set of new genes that are likely to be responsible.
“The functions related to these genes may indicate pathways that underlie the development of Alzheimer’s disease in people up to 20 years before symptoms actually surface.
“Results suggest that the effect of having one copy of these ‘risk’ genes was that the hippocampus, on average, was as small as that of a person four to five years older.”
The team analysed data from the Tasmanian Study of Cognition and Gait from the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania and looked at the genes that contribute to the size of the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is important for memory.
The hippocampus shrinks during the course of ageing but the shrinkage is believed to become more pronounced during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.