New research has discovered genetic clues in people who have had small, ‘silent’ strokes that could enable the development of new treatments for the condition.

The research, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), identified changes to 12 genetic regions in the DNA of people who have had a lacunar stroke – this type of stroke is caused by a weakening of the small blood vessels deep in the brain.

Following this type of stroke, damage to the blood vessels and interruption to blood flow can cause difficulty with thinking, memory, walking and ultimately lead to dementia.

Prior to this research, only one genetic fault had been associated with lacunar strokes.

The research team, led by Professor Hugh Markus and his team at the University of Cambridge working with international researchers, now hope their findings could enable the discovery of new treatments for lacunar stroke and vascular dementia.

The researchers scanned and compared the genetic code of 7,338 patients who had a lacunar stroke with 254,798 people who had not.

After this, they discovered many of the 12 genetic regions linked to lacunar strokes were involved in maintaining the neurovascular unit.

These genetic changes are believed to make the small blood vessels ‘leakier’ and cause toxic substances to enter the brain.

The research team, based on their findings, will now plan to test if new treatments can correct these abnormalities on brain cells in the lab, with hopes to begin human clinical trials in the next ten years.

“These small and often silent lacunar strokes have gone under the radar for a long time, and so we haven’t been able treat patients as well as we’d like to. Although small, their consequences for patients can be enormous,” said Professor Markus, BHF-funded researcher, leader of the study and neurologist at the University of Cambridge.

“We now plan to use this new genetic blueprint as a springboard to develop much needed treatments to prevent lacunar strokes from occurring in the first place and to help stave off dementia,” he added.