A discovery led by New Zealand scientists could lead to better treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Professor Cliff Abraham and Dr Anurag Singh, of Otago University's Department of Psychology, have found how a protein in the brain normally associated with inflammation becomes abnormally active in the Alzheimer's brain, impairing the memory mechanism.

The overproduction of this protein - called tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNFa) – may be one of the reasons behind the disease-related impairments of memory formation in the brain.

"While TNFa has been linked previously with Alzheimer's and memory studies, it has not been understood that neural overactivity can drive the production of this protein to inhibit memory mechanisms in the brain," said Abraham, a principal investigator at the university's Brain Health Research Centre.

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He said the findings, just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, offered one more step forward toward finding a more effective treatment for the disease.

Researchers had already eyed blockers of TNFa as a therapeutic for inflammatory diseases and cancer.

However, there were only a few studies testing TNFa therapeutics in Alzheimer's conditions.

"There is a huge international effort aimed at preventing Alzheimer's disease onset, or treating it once it develops," Abraham said.

"Lifestyle changes and improved healthcare are having some impact already in delaying onset.

"However, we still need drugs to treat those with the disease already and we hope our work adds to that body of knowledge to support further work on TNFa-based therapies which will improve the resilience of the brain to the pathological insults."

The Otago scientists have been working on this project for the past six years.

Singh said the finding was significant, given the protein had a role to play in regulating memory mechanisms in both healthy and diseased conditions.

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"In healthy conditions, TNFa is involved in the sleep/wake cycle, normal learning and in food and water intake however, in diseased conditions it is involved in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease."