Researchers have discovered a link between the absence of a naturally occurring protein in humans and early signs of dementia.

A study published in Nature Communications found that a lack of the protein MK2/3 promotes structural and psychological changes to cells in the nervous system. The study reports the changes were found to have a significant correlation with early signs of dementia.

Researchers found that an absence of the MK2/3 caused the spines of postsynaptic neurons to change, restricting their ability to communicate with each other. While the change did not prevent memories from being formed, it did prevent the memories from being altered.

“By demonstrating for the first time that the MK2/3 protein, which is essential for neuron communication, is required to fine-tune memory formation, this study provides new insight into how molecular mechanisms regulate cognition,” study author and lead researcher Dr. Sonia Correa of the University of Warwick in England, said in a press release.

Neurons are able to adapt memories to make them more relevant to current situations by changing the way they communicate with other cells.

“For those who develop the early signs of dementia it becomes more difficult for them to adapt to change in their life, including performing routine tasks,” Correa said. “The change in shape of the postsynaptic neuron due to absence of MK2/3 is strongly correlated with this inability to acquire the new memories.”

The findings have sparked researchers to call for more studies on MK2/3.

“Understanding how the brain functions from the sub-cellular to systems level is vital if we are able to develop ways to counteract changes that occur with aging,” Correa said.