Illustration by Sydney Rae Hass for TIME
May 26, 2016 10:36 AM EDT

Alzheimer’s disease may be the result of byproduct that builds up in the brain when it fights infections, according to a new study.

The new study, if proven, could change the way the medical community thinks about the disease, and the development of drugs to treat it. For a long time, researchers believed that a protein called amyloid beta had a role in causing Alzheimer’s by building up plaque in the brain that destroyed its ability to make connections, ultimately leading to memory loss. Now, the new research which is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that amyloid buildup may actually happen as a protective measure when the brain is trying to fight off infections, and that Alzheimer’s disease may be caused when an infection causes too much amyloid buildup. As people age, it may be easier for infections to reach the brain, triggering the amyloid and spurring the cascade of problems that lead to the disease.

The study authors made the discovery by infecting brain cells in lab dishes, worms and mice with bacteria and studying how the brain creates amyloid and plaque in response. If the research is confirmed with more evidence, then the way scientists go about developing drugs for the disease could change. As Scientific American reports, it may be that a little amyloid protein is good for the brain, and instead of getting rid of all of it, researchers may want to focus on ways to lower the levels. “We might want to think about just dialing it down,” study author and neurologist Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard University, tells Scientific American.

More research is needed to determine whether the link is definitive, but other experts in the field are calling the findings “provocative.”


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