Australian scientists will soon arrive at a drug that could cure certain types of dementia. Sydney-based Neuroscience Research Australia recently discovered a gene which causes abnormal proteins to build up in the brains of those suffering frontotemporal dementia, which hits in a person's 50s and 60s.

Researcher Dr John Kwok said there were already several drugs approved for human use that were known to act on this same SIGMAR1 gene.

"Common psychiatric drugs, such as haloperidol, used to treat schizophrenia, are known to act on this gene," said Dr Kwok. Researchers hope these drugs will slow the progression of the disease.

Explaining that frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a type of dementia that affects personality, behavior and language, he noted that there is currently no treatment to slow or stop this disease.

People with FTD develop unusual protein deposits in their brains and the discovery of the gene responsible is a significant step.

The researchers took DNA samples from a large Australian family with hereditary FTD, along with 26 other families in Australia and 158 families in Europe, to finally zero in on the gene.

"Identifying this gene gives us greater insight into how brain degeneration occurs in dementia," said Dr Kwok.

The initial studies with haloperidol, a typical antipsychotic, suggested a dose 10 to 100 times less than that used to treat psychosis may be effective at combating dementia.

Later they tested it on mice, to see if this and other drugs, could stop the abnormal buildup of protein in the brain, and so prevent the death of brain cells that is dementia.

"The exciting part about our findings is that an effective treatment for this form of dementia might be almost within our grasp," he said.

"Because these drugs are already approved for use in humans, we could be looking at a treatment for frontotemporal dementia becoming available in just a few short years."

The study was published in Annals of Neurology.