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Hippocampal shrinkage is accelerated by four gene variants

Monday 16 April 2012

A new international study shows that four gene variants may speed shrinkage of the hippocampus in healthy humans. Scientists found that shrinkage in people with these variants accelerates by about four years on average. If such a person were to develop Alzheimer's, the disease would attack an already compromised hippocampus - leading to a more severe condition at a younger age.

"This is definitely a case of 'bigger is better'," said Dr. Charles DeCarli, co-leader of the study and Professor of Neurology at the University of California in Davis. "We already know that Alzheimer's disease causes much of its damage by shrinking hippocampus volume. If someone loses a greater-than-average amount of volume due to the gene variants we've identified, the hippocampus is more vulnerable to Alzheimer's.

"With this study, we have new evidence that aging, the hippocampus and memory are influenced by specific genes. Understanding how these genes affect the development and aging of the hippocampus may give us new tools to delay memory loss with advanced age and possibly reduce the impact of such diseases as Alzheimer's disease."

The research team hopes to find ways to protect the hippocampus from premature shrinkage or slow its decline by studying the normal regulation of the proteins coded by these genes.

This project involved more than 80 scientists at 71 institutions in eight countries. The study used a very large assemblage of genetic and disease data called the Cohorts for Heart and Aging Research in Genomic Epidemiology Consortium, or CHARGE. The consortium brings together several population-based cohorts in the United States and Europe.