Brain scan Brain scan The protein SIRT6 is almost completely absent in Alzheimer's patients' brains, researchers found. (Photo: sfam_photo/Shutterstock)

With new discovery, a big Alzheimer's mystery is solved

A crucial protein is absent in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Researchers say that could one day lead to a cure.

The common wisdom around Alzheimer's disease is that it's caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that accumulate over time. Researchers have known for a long time that Alzheimer's-affected brains have fewer cells than healthy brains. But it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing these cells to die, and why.

In new research out of Ben Gurion University in Israel, scientists are one major step closer to figuring that out. A team discovered a protein, called SIRT6, that is almost completely absent in Alzheimer's patients, and likely contributes to its onset. The team working on the project included researchers at Harvard and MIT. Their study was published in the journal Cell Reports.

colon cancerDNA damage in brain cells happens over many years and can lead to Alzheimer's. (Photo: vitstudio/Shutterstock)

Without the presence of this crucial protein, researchers noted, DNA becomes damaged, leading to dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

"If a decrease in SIRT6 – and lack of DNA repair – is the beginning of the chain that ends in neurodegenerative diseases in seniors, then we should be focusing our research on how to maintain production of SIRT6 and avoid the DNA damage that leads to these diseases,” said Dr. Deborah Toiber, lead author of the study and a professor at the Israeli university.

While much of the research on the causes of Alzheimer's focuses on the plaques and tangles that form in patients with the disease, Toiber's lab has been focusing on SIRT6 as a more viable culprit. In fact, she said, the absence of SIRT6 may actually be a precursor to the formation of those plaques and tangles.

The next step, Toiber and colleagues said, is finding a way to keep SIRT6 from deteriorating in the brain, either by creating a synthetic substitute or by triggering the body to produce the protein on its own. "We believe that this axis holds promise as a therapeutic target in neurodegeneration," she said.

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