March 21, 2014 -- A problem in the brain's stress response system may be an important factor in the memory and thinking problems experienced by people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, new research says.
Harvard scientists found that when the system is working normally, it can protect the brain from Alzheimer's-related proteins. But if it malfunctions, important areas of the brain begin to deteriorate, The New York Times reported.
Specifically, a protein called REST helps protect brain cells in healthy seniors from aging-related stresses, but levels of the protein are much lower in important brain regions in people with Alzheimer's and other dementias.
The protein could offer a target for the development of new drugs for dementias, The Times reported.
The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
"This is an extremely important study," Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Times.
"This is the first study that is really starting to provide a plausible pathway to explain why some people are more vulnerable to Alzheimer's than other people," said Tsai, who was not involved in the study but wrote an accompanying commentary.
Further studies are needed to determine if lower REST levels are caused by or the result of brain degeneration in Alzheimer's patients or whether focusing on the protein could lead to effective treatments.
"You're going to see a lot of papers now following up on it," Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, told The Times.
"While it's a preliminary finding, it raises an avenue that hasn't been considered before. And if this provides a handle on which to understand normal brain aging, that will be great, too," said Reiman, who was not involved in the research.