Researchers at an affiliate of a Japanese government-backed research institute said they have discovered that an enzyme in the brain plays a key role in preventing or delaying the development of Alzheimer’s disease, the U.S. magazine Science reported Friday.

News of the discovery comes two days after the announcement that a team of researchers led by a Keio University professor has found a gene that prevents brain cells from deteriorating from Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease, kills neuronal cells and shrinks the brain, causing dementia.

A research team led by Takaomi Saido of the Saitama Prefecture-based Riken Brain Science Institute, an affiliate of the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, discovered through experiments on mice that the enzyme Neprilysin “cleans up” Beta-amyloid, a substance that destroys brain cells.

This mechanism is considered to be crucial in preventing Alzheimer’s or delaying its symptoms, as Neprilysin is known to decompose accumulated Beta-amyloid.

The experiments involved the use of normal mice and those that had been genetically modified so that they were unable to produce Neprilysin.

The team found that the decomposition capability of the normal mice was, at maximum, double that of those without Neprilysin.

Mice that had inherited a genetic abnormality from only one parent also showed a lower decomposition capability than normal mice.

Most Alzheimer’s patients have roughly the same amount of Beta-amyloid in the brain as healthy people, and it is thus not known how the disease starts to develop.

The discovery suggests, however, that some people inherently carry less active Neprilysin and that these people develop the disease as they grow older, with their clean-up mechanism becoming inefficient, the team said.

The team expects that genetic therapy will be able to be applied to patients whose Neprilysin has become less active, should studies on the enzyme at the genetic level proceed.

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