New research has unearthed three new genes associated with Alzheimer's disease, causing much excitement among the scientific community.

The findings of two studies have been published in the Nature Genetics journal and represent a breakthrough. Previously only one gene, ApoE4 (discovered in 1993), had been shown to be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

The first study, led by Julie Williams of Cardiff University and involving scientists from universities across the UK (who collaborated with Irish, German, Belgian, Greek and American institutions), involving 16,000 people. It revealed that two genes, CLU and Picalm, are related to Alzheimer's disease.

Prof Williams noted that CLU is a clusterin, a type of protein, which normally protects the brain in a variety of ways. Variation in this gene could remove this protection and contribute to Alzheimer's. Picalm is important at synapses and is involved in the transport of molecules into and inside of nerve cells, “helping form memories and other brain functions”.

As such, “we know that the health of synapses is closely related to memory performance in Alzheimer's disease, thus changes in genes which affect synapses are likely to have a direct effect on disease development," she added. Prof Williams added that the research shows that other genes can be identified using this method, “and we are already planning a larger study involving 60,000 people, which can be achieved within the next year”.

The second study, led by Philippe Amouyel from the Institut Pasteur de Lille in France, also noted the role of CLU and another gene, CR1. The analysis studied more than 6,000 Alzheimer's patients and some 9,000 healthy people in France, Belgium, Finland, Italy and Spain.

That both sets of research identified CLU has aroused great interest though both teams of researchers have stressed that much more needs to be done. Nevertheless, Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, which part-funded the study, said the findings are “a leap forward for dementia research”. She added that “at a time when we are yet to find ways of halting this devastating condition, this development is likely to spark off numerous new ideas, collaborations and more in the race for a cure”.