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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 00:01 GMT
Brain gene 'clue to ageing'
Elderly man
Research into ageing may lead to new treatments
A gene in the brain which is linked to Alzheimer's Disease may be responsible for some people ageing more rapidly than others, say scientists.

Researchers found an association between nerve cell changes associated with ageing and the presence of a variation of the apolipoprotein gene, known as apolipoprotein E4 (APOE4).

This form of the gene is carried by 25% of the population and has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease and memory loss after head injury or bypass surgery.

Scientists tried to discover why some elderly adults retain strong mental capacity well into their 90s while others fall into progressive decline or dementia.

This may be one more piece in the jigsaw of understanding what's going on in our brains as we get older

Research Into Ageing spokeswoman
Those who carried the APOE4 gene aged faster than those without the gene, experts at North Carolina's Duke University Medical Center found.

Lead study researcher Dr Murali Doraiswamy, a psychiatrist at Duke University, said: "The frontal lobe is the site where the earliest and most consistent effects of ageing occur in the brain.

"Virtually every mental symptom of normal ageing results from decline in frontal lobe functions.

"When we examined this vital area of the brain by following a particular genetic marker, we found a single gene variation that can result in significant nerve cell changes associated with ageing.

"Of the people we studied, those who carried the APOE4 gene experienced a more rapid loss of nerve cell functioning."

The research team is presenting its findings at the 15th annual meeting of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry in Orlando, Florida.

Dr Doraiswamy's team used magnetic resonance imaging to detect nerve cell changes in people with different genetic patterns.

They measured levels of N-acetylsparate (NAA), a brain cell known to be closely associated to nerve cells and hence to mental functions.

Memory decline

The study looked at the level of NAA in the brains of 165 healthy men and women, aged between 55 and 85.

They were divided into two groups, based on whether they were carriers of the APOE4 gene or not.

Both groups were given a series of memory tests to obtain their NAA levels.

After two years, a subset of the participants were given more memory tests and studied again.

The team found those with lower NAA levels at the beginning of the study had greater loss of short-term memory and naming abilities after two years.

Dr Doraiswamy said: "We found that NAA levels declined mildly with increasing age for all participants in the study.

"But when the study was broken down by genetic makeup, the average loss of NAA across the age span was nearly three-fold higher in people with the APOE4 gene than in those who were not carriers of this gene."

The researchers concluded the brains of those who carry the APOE4 gene show greater deterioration than those who do not.

The charity organisation Research Into Ageing believes this is another development along the road of understanding the ageing process.

A spokeswoman said: "It's good to know progress is being made and research is being carried out to help understand what's going on in our brains and bodies as we get older.

"This may be one more piece in the jigsaw of understanding what's going on in our brains as we get older.

"And it's good that we may be able to tackle the things in life that make older life miserable.

"You have to be able to understand the mechanisms in order to develop a treatment."

See also:

06 Jun 01 | Health
Vaccine hope for Alzheimer's
07 May 01 | Health
Alzheimer's linked to vitamins
24 Apr 01 | Health
10-minute test for Alzheimer's
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