The team from Monell and Northwestern researchers has found that the compound called oleocanthal alters the structure of neurotoxic proteins believed to contribute to the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's.
This structural change impedes the proteins' ability to damage brain nerve cells.
"The findings may help identify effective preventative measures and lead to improved therapeutics in the fight against Alzheimer's disease," said study co-leader Dr Paul A.S. Breslin, a sensory psychobiologist at the Monell Center.
Known as ADDLs, these highly toxic proteins bind within the neural synapses of the brains of Alzheimer's patients and are believed to directly disrupt nerve cell function, eventually leading to memory loss, cell death, and global disruption of brain function.
Synapses are specialized junctions that allow one nerve cell to send information another.
"Oleocanthal alters ADDL structure in a way that deters their binding to synapses," said Dr William L. Klein, who co-led the research with Breslin.
Knowing that oleocanthal changed ADDL size, the researchers next examined whether oleocanthal affected the ability of ADDLs to bind to synapses of cultured hippocampal neurons.
The hippocampus, a part of the brain intimately involved in learning and memory, is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer's disease.
Measuring ADDL binding with and without oleocanthal, they discovered that small amounts of oleocanthal effectively reduced binding of ADDLs to hippocampal synapses.
Additional studies revealed that oleocanthal could protect synapses from structural damage caused by ADDLs.
The findings are reported in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.