IT is an illness that brings misery to thousands of sufferers and their families across Hampshire.

But today Hampshire scientists have revealed that they have made a major breakthrough in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

It is hoped the ground-breaking study could lead to better ways of treating and preventing the dementia condition, which affects thousands of people across the county and their families.

Important new research by a world-renowned team from the University of Southampton has examined how one of the most common genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s impacts the brain.

For the first time, scientists now know how a gene present in half of people who develop the disease makes them more susceptible to it. Experts hope that knowledge can now be used to create effective ways of tackling dementia, which blights the lives of more than 2,000 people in Southampton alone.

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, which paid for the work, said: “Research like this makes the risk picture more complete, and moves us closer to developing new treatments and preventions that can avert this devastating disease.”

The work, which involved studying mice, is part of a wider bid to find out what factors make people more likely to suffer from the disease, and why.

Scientists have known for some time that people with a certain “risk” gene have a much higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s, and at an earlier age.

But the study, part of almost half a million pounds of ongoing research in Southampton and Brighton funded by the charity, has discovered the difference that gene makes to the brain, clogging blood vessels with a toxic protein.

Southampton-based Dr Cheryl Hawkes, an author on the study, which is published today in medical journal PLoS ONE, said: “These initial results are really exciting because they help us to build a bigger picture of the factors influencing a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s. The next step will be to move this study from mice into humans to confirm that we see a similar change.”

Dr Ridley said the understanding of factors putting an individual at risk of the disease is improving at “an incredible rate”, and hopes this research can also help others working to combat Alzheimer’s.

He said: “Across our lifestyle and the environment , our age, diet and our genes, the answers to what predisposes us to Alzheimer’s are being found.

“Research like this makes the risk picture more complete, and moves us closer to developing new treatments and preventions.

“There are around half a million people in the UK living with Alzheimer’s disease, yet research into dementia remains hugely underfunded compared to other common diseases.

“If we are to make a real different to the lives of people with this devastating disease, we must continue to invest in research.”