The BRCA1 gene (aka the "Jolie gene"), which has long been associated with both breast and ovarian cancers, may now be linked to Alzheimer's disease, as well.
You've probably heard about the gene thanks to Angelina Jolie, who catapulted BRCA1 into notoriety in 2013 when she revealed in an op-ed in The New York Times that she has a BRCA1 gene mutation that increases her chance of getting breast and ovarian cancers by 87 and 50 percent, respectively. You also probably remember she decided to have both of her breasts and ovaries removed to reduce her risk of developing the cancers.
We've known for a while that mutations in the BRCA1 gene are associated with higher breast and ovarian cancer risk; however, in this new study on Alzheimer's, researchers suggest it has to do with what BRCA1 produces when it is expressed normally: a BRCA1 protein that helps repair DNA.
In a November 2015 study published in Nature Communications, researchers found that lower levels of the BRCA1 protein affect how nerve cells are repaired. So when the mice they studied had very low levels of the protein, DNA repair didn't happen, which led to nerve death and memory problems.
The researchers also looked at the brains of humans who had died with Alzheimer's and found that BRCA1 levels were up to 75 percent lower than in those of people without the disease.
That said, this is a preliminary study. James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Society, told the Huffington Post: "This research in mice raises some very interesting questions about the role that the BRCA1 gene plays in the brain, but it is too soon to know if this gene is connected to Alzheimer's disease or any other form of dementia.
Further research into each of these factors will help us to better understand why people develop the condition and help us to find effective treatments."