Gene roughly triples risk of Alzheimer's

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Scientists have identified a new gene variant that seems to strongly raise the risk for Alzheimer's disease, giving a fresh target for research into treatments for the mind-robbing disorder.

The problem gene is not common -- less than 1 percent of people are thought to have it -- but it roughly triples the chances of developing Alzheimer's, compared with people with the normal version of the gene. It also seems to harm memory and thinking in older people without dementia.

The main reason scientists are excited by the discovery is what this gene does, and how that might reveal what causes Alzheimer's and ways to prevent it.

The new gene, TREM2, helps the immune system control inflammation in the brain and clear junk such as the sticky deposits that are the hallmark of the disease. Mutations in the gene may impair these tasks, so treatments to restore its function and quell inflammation may help.

"It points us to potential therapeutics in a more precise way than we've seen in the past," said Dr. William Thies of the Alzheimer's Association, which had no role in the research.

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It is described in a study by an international group published online yesterday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Alzheimer's has no known cure.

Until now, only one gene -- ApoE -- has been found to have a big impact on Alzheimer's risk. About 17 percent of the population has at least one copy of the problem version of this gene but nearly half of all people with Alzheimer's do.

TREM2 already has been tied to a couple other forms of dementia. Researchers led by deCODE Genetics Inc. of Iceland homed in on a version of it they identified through mapping the entire genetic code of more than 2,200 Icelanders.

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