Researchers at the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh say they have discovered the functions of the area of the brain in which Alzheimer’s begins, potentially opening the door to new approaches to treatment the disease.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, with more than 520,000 people in the UK suffering from the disorder.

The first symptoms are related to episodic memory, with patients experiencing difficulty remembering the things that have happened to them.

The new research, published in Current Biology, focused on one of the first brain areas to show changes in Alzheimer’s – the lateral entorhinal cortex (LEC).

This consists of layers of cells which form complex networks of connections with other brain regions and contains sub-systems that have different memory functions.

The team, led by Dr Brianna Vandrey now of Edinburgh University, found that when a particular connection between one of the layers of the LEC and the hippocampus malfunctions, episodic memory is affected while simpler forms of memory remain unaffected.

“This research is important as it gives us a very specific target when developing treatments and strategies to prevent neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr James Ainge of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, commenting on the findings.