Increasing KLOTHO gene levels in mice made them smarter, possibly by increasing the strength of connections between nerve cells in the brain.
The study was partly funded by the National Institutes of Health.
"This could be a major step toward helping millions around the world who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias," Dena Dubal, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology, the David A. Coulter Endowed Chair in Aging and Neurodegeneration at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and the lead author of the study said.
"If we could boost the brain's ability to function, we may be able to counter dementias," Dubal said.
Klotho is the name of a Greek mythological goddess of fate, "who spins the thread of life." People who have one copy of a variant, or form, of the KLOTHO gene, called KL-VS, tend to live longer and have lower chances of suffering a stroke whereas people who have two copies may live shorter lives and have a higher risk of stroke.
In this study, the investigators found that people who had one copy of the KL-VS variant performed better on a battery of cognitive tests than subjects who did not have it, regardless of age, sex or the presence of the apolipoprotein 4 gene, the main genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.
"This study shows the importance of genes that regulate the multiple aging processes involved in the maintenance of cognitive function," Suzana Petanceska, Ph.D., program director in NIA's Division of Neuroscience said.
"Understanding the factors that control the levels and activity of KLOTHO across multiple organ systems may open new therapeutic avenues for prevention of age-related cognitive decline and dementia," she added.
The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.