Current Alzheimer's drugs are restricted in its effectiveness because of side effects. This new finding has generated a lot of excitement as it specifically targets the nerve cells avoiding other cell types.
"Of even more importance, these drugs may be much less toxic than prior drugs in this class," said Professor Stuart Lipton, study author and director of the Centre for Neurosciences and Aging at the Burnham Institute.
This study represents the first reported evidence that this protective response can be activated directly in nerve cells to release antioxidants and counter oxidative stress, boding well for future research.
The US-Japanese research team, consisting of scientists from the Burnham Institute of Medical Research in La Jolla, California, and four Japanese universities, Iwate, Osaka City, Iwate Medical and Gifu Universities, experimented on the nerve cells in the brains of mice.
This approach works by inducing nerve cells in the brain and the spine to release natural antioxidants that protect nerve cells from stress and free radicals that lead to neurodegenerative diseases.
Until this discovery, researchers were unable to induce release of these specific antioxidants directly in nerve cells, at the site where damage and degeneration occurs.
In stroke and various neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease, glutamate, an amino acid found in high quantities in the brain, is thought to accumulate.
At normal concentrations, glutamate acts as a neurotransmitter that nerves use to communicate. However, at excessive levels glutamate is toxic, resulting in over stimulation of nerve cells, known as excitotoxicity, and causing excessive stress on the nerve cells eventually ending in cell death.
However Lipton was quick to point out that the study had only been done in mice, and that a break through was a long way off.
Currently, 24.3 million people are currently estimated to have dementia, with 4.6 million new cases being diagnosed each year as the population ages. By 2040 the number is predicted to have risen to 81.1 million.
A report for Alzheimer's Disease International, published in The Lancet, said that the number of cases of dementia world-wide is likely to double every 20 years.
The report said most people living with dementia are in the developing world, with five million in China alone.
This compares with 4.8 million in Western Europe and 3.4 million in North America.
The paper detailing the findings of this study is entitled "Activation of the Keap1/Nrf2 Pathway for Neuroprotection by Electrophilic Phase II Inducers," is published in the January 17th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.