Scientists have some new clues about what genetic factors may play a role in Alzheimer's disease. And that's all thanks to tens of thousands of people from around the world.

 

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, but Dr. Gerard Schellenberg, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said there's no treatment or way to stop the disease from progressing.

Over the last two years, he and colleagues in the U.S. and Europe have been mining DNA samples from more than 70,000 people, making it the world's largest Alzheimer's project. Their hope is to zero in on possible gene variants for the disease.

"We're trying to figure out the mechanism, what starts the disease, what are the steps that take a normal brain all the way to a disease brain," said Schellenberg.

Genes can help uncover those mechanisms, he said.

While scientists have been studying a handful of genes thought to be associated with Alzheimer's over the years, Schellenberg's group recently identified 11 new ones.

Drug therapies for Alzheimer's are "not exactly around the corner, but this just gives us a much better chance at finding a drug," said Schellenberg, adding that it will likely take scientists 10 to 15 years to develop an actual drug therapy.

Schellenberg, who oversees the Alzheimer's Disease Genetics Consortium, said the next step is to learn more about how the genes actually work. Some of them are associated with the brain's inflammatory response or immune system.