A SIMPLE protein pill that repairs DNA damage could offer protection against Alzheimer’s and help stop the onset of the disease, scientists have claimed.
The protein SIRT1 (Sirtuin1) was found to protect brain cells in mice, and scientists hope the same will be true in humans.
The breakthrough comes as a growing number of elderly and middle-aged people are being struck down by Alzheimer’s, with nearly half a million sufferers of the illness in the UK now.
Alzheimer’s Scotland says it is estimated that one in three women aged 90 and over suffer from dementia, with females more vulnerable to the illness that leads to the death of brain cells.
The SIRT1 protein has been dubbed the “longevity gene” because it is known to combat the effects of ageing, experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have claimed.
Their research found drugs that activate the enzyme may reduce the destruction of neurons in the brain that causes dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. Recent studies in animals suggest that humans could increase production of SIRT1 to sharpen their own thinking and memory.
The claims received a major boost three years ago when mice bred to have lower or increased levels of the protein in their neurons showed it to be critical for brain power.
The latest paper published in Nature Neuroscience says damaged cells in mouse models of neurodegeneration, as seen in Alzheimer’s, can be mended with SIRT1.
SIRT1 is a member of a family of genes called sirtuins, which protect the brain from cell death. Researchers found that without the protein, neurons cannot repair DNA damage induced by toxic chemicals.
The study also discovered treating mice with neurodegeneration and dementia with a SIRT1 activator drug protected neurons against DNA damage.
Neuroscientist Professor Li-Huei Tsai, of MIT, claimed the benefits of the latest research could be “substantial”.
He said: “Once formed during early development, neurons are retained for life and are therefore faced with the challenge of maintaining a stable genome for long periods of time.
“DNA damage has been linked to cognitive decline in the ageing human brain, and mutations in DNA repair genes manifest profoundly with neurological implications.
“Recent studies have suggested DNA damage is also elevated in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Considering these observations, the benefits conferred by activation of SIRT1 could be substantial.”
News of the breakthrough comes as it was announced a potential Alzheimer’s treatment that triggers the creation of new brain cells is to be tested on human volunteers. The drug, allopregnanolone, has already been shown to improve mental functioning in animals.