A gene has been identified which may be responsible for stroke stockdevil/iStock

A new gene named FOXF2 has been identified which is linked to small vessel disease in the brain, a leading cause of strokes and dementia. FOXF2 plays a role in a type of ischemic stroke (a clot obstructing blood flow). The research also suggests that some genes are linked to both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding into the brain).

The research, published in the journal Lancet Neurology, describes how small vessel disease is also a risk factor for dementia. Scientists believe studying the FOXF2 the gene could help them develop new ways to treat and prevent stroke, and stroke-related dementia such as Alzheimer's.

Researchers from Boston University Medical Center analysed the genomes of nearly 85,000 volunteers in the study. Of all the participants, 4,348 suffered from strokes. All volunteers had their genomes analysed to identify if there was any difference in genes between those that suffered strokes, and those that did not.

The FOXF2 gene was singled out as increasing the risk of stroke through small vessel disease. This is the first time a gene has been identified which is linked to small vessel disease.

"Unravelling the mechanisms of small vessel disease is essential for the development of therapeutic and preventive strategies for this major cause of stroke," said Sudha Seshadri, researcher working on the study. "It is exciting that we are beginning to better understand the cause of this very important and poorly understood type of stroke."

Problems with supplying blood to the brain can also lead to vascular dementia – the type of dementia commonly associated with stroke, affecting 150,000 people in the UK. The researchers believe this means their discovery is even more important, as it opens the door to a potential therapy for these patients.

Stroke is the leading cause of neurological death across the globe, and is the third largest cause of all types of death in the UK, behind heart disease and cancer. 110,000 people suffer a stroke in England every year.