US scientists used it to increase levels of a chemical which helps brain cells signal to each other.
The Alzheimer’s Research Trust said the study suggested a way to keep nerve cells in the brain communicating,
Ageing populations in many countries around the world mean that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are set to increase.
Researchers at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease in San Francisco believe that boosting the brain chemical, a neurotransmitter called EphB2, could help reduce or even prevent some of the worst effects of the condition.
Their research suggests that the chemical plays an important role in memory, and is depleted in Alzheimer’s patients.
One of the most noticeable features about the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is the build-up of “plaques” of a toxic protein called amyloid. Over time this leads to the death of brain cells.
However, another characteristic of amyloid is its apparent ability to bind directly to EphB2, reducing the amount available to brain cells, which could in part explain the memory symptoms involved.
To test this idea, they used gene therapy experiments to artificially reduce and increase the amount of available EphB2 in the brains of mice.
When levels of the chemical were reduced, healthy mice developed memory symptoms similar to those seen in mice bred to have a condition similar to Alzheimer’s.
Conversely, when the “Alzheimer’s” mice were given gene therapy which boosted levels of EphB2, their memory symptoms disappeared.
Dr Lennart Mucke, who led the study, said that his team had been “thrilled” to find this.
However UK researchers said that the find, while interesting, did not offer a swift answer to Alzheimer’s patients.