A gene that triggers stroke and dementia by damaging vessels in the brain has been discovered, offering hope of new drugs for the two most common neurological conditions.

The gene blocks off blood flow denying the organ essential oxygen and nourishment, without which neurons die.

The finding, published in the journal Lancet Neurology, may help researchers better understand, treat and prevent stroke, and perhaps Alzheimer’s disease as well.

Stroke is the leading neurological cause of death and disability worldwide. In the UK it kills about 40,000 people a year, making it the third largest cause of death behind heart disease and cancer.

Previous studies have looked mainly at genes causing hardening of the arteries, known as atherosclerosis, and those behind blood clots that cause a form of the disease called ischaemic stroke. A different set have been associated with haemorrhagic stroke, or bleeding into the brain.

US scientists conducted what is known as a genome-wide association study to identify genetic variations in the DNA of stroke victims, and also a meta-analysis, where data from previous research is pooled into one big set.

This pinpointed a new gene called FOXF2 which increased the risk of having a stroke due to disease affecting the small blood vessels in the brain.

No previous study has identified a gene for the common type of small vessel disease stroke although some genes associated with a form of the condition that runs in families, such as CADASIL, are known.

Professor Sudha Seshadri, of Boston University, said: “Our research has identified a gene affecting another type of ischaemic stroke, due to small vessel disease, and also suggests some genes may be associated with both ischaemic and hemorrhagic stroke and may act through a novel pathway affecting pericytes, a type of cell in the wall of small arteries and capillaries.

“Unravelling the mechanisms of small vessel disease is essential for the development of therapeutic and preventive strategies for this major cause of stroke.”

According to the researchers small vessel disease not only causes stroke but is also a major contributor to dementia risk, and is associated with gait problems and depression.

Prof Seshadri added: “Hence, it is exciting we are beginning to better understand the cause of this very important and poorly understood type of stroke.”

There are around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to more than a million by 2025.

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