Auckland scientists have made a world-first discovery which could help treat dementia and other neurological diseases.
They've pinpointed the mechanism that controls blood flow to the brain, and it's hoped that could lead to preventing the condition altogether.
Auckland University professor Julian Paton made the "fundamental" discovery along with a team of scientists. He said they confirmed tiny star-shaped cells called astrocytes can control blood flow to the brain.
Sustained blood flow to the brain can lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and dementia.
"We've known for over 100 years or more that there must be a mechanism within the brain that allows it to control its own blood flow. So to be able to contribute to this literature is extremely exciting," Paton said.
"We believe a lot of the neurodegeneration results from a reduction in blood supply and oxygen and nutrients to the brain. We hope to be able to manipulate these astrocytes to improve blood flow to the brain."
By creating a mechanism to either stimulate or slow down the astrocytes, Paton's ultimate hope is to prevent those brain diseases.
"If we get lucky, we may be able to, over the next four to five years, be able to suggest ways, propose ways and test ways through which we can pharmacologically increase blood supply into the brain."
Alzheimers New Zealand said while it's early days, the discovery offers real hope for patients.
"If we are going to do more and better for people with dementia, we have to know more about how the brain works. And so this is an exciting new discovery," CEO Catherine Hall said.
More than 70,000 New Zealanders currently have dementia, making it one of the country's most significant healthcare challenges. This number is expected to triple by 2050.