"Let's proceed with caution," Robert Vassar of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said in a statement. "We have to keep our eyes open for potential side effects of these drugs."
Vassar originally discovered the enzyme BACE1, which acts as a molecular scissors, cutting up and releasing proteins that form the plaques believed to cause Alzheimer's disease.
However, in Vassar's current study, BACE1 was also found to have critical role as the brain's electrician. In that role, the enzyme maps out the location of axons -- the wires that connect neurons to the brain and the rest of the nervous system.
Working with mice from which BACE1 was genetically removed, Vassar discovered the animals' olfactory system -- used for the sense of smell -- was incorrectly wired.
"It's like a badly wired house," Vassar said. "If the electrician doesn't get the wiring pattern correct, your lights won't turn on and the outlets won't work. But it's not all bad news. These BACE1 blockers might be useful at a specific dose that will reduce the amyloid plaques but not high enough to interfere with the wiring."
The findings were published in the journal Molecular Neurodegeneration and presented Saturday at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.