The gene encodes a protein that is important for intracellular transportation. Each brain cell relies on an internal highway system that transports molecular signals needed for development, communication and survival of the cell.

This system's impairment can disrupt amyloid-beta processing, causing its eventual accumulation. This contributes to the development of amyloid plaques, which are a key hallmark of Alzheimer's disease.

"Alzheimer's is a multifactorial disease where a build-up of subtle problems develop in the nervous system over a span of decades," said Michael Silverman, an SFU biology associate professor who worked on the study with a team of Japanese scientists led by Dr Takashi Morihara at Osaka University.

"Alzheimer's, like many human disorders, has a genetic component, yet many environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to the disease as well," said Silverman.

"In a sense, it is like looking for a needle in a complex genetic haystack," he added.

The gene discovery could open new avenues for the design of therapeutics and pave the way for early detection by helping healthcare professionals identify those who are predisposed to the disease, researchers said.

"One possibility is that a genetic test for a particular variant of this newly discovered gene, along with other variants of genes that contribute to Alzheimer's, will help to give a person their overall risk for the disease," said Silverman.

"Lifestyle changes, such as improved diet, exercise, and an increase in cognitive stimulation may then help to slow the progression of Alzheimer's," he said.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Agencies)

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