Olive oil has many proven health benefits -- from neutralizing cancer-causing free radicals and preventing heart disease, to strengthening bones and reducing inflammation and healing wounds. And it now may hold clues to finding treatments for Alzheimer's disease, new research suggests.

US scientists have identified a naturally occurring compound in extra virgin olive oil that's been found to prevent cell damage that leads to dementia in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

The antioxidant compound, called oleocanthal and which gives the oil its peppery taste, was found to prevent the destruction of synapses in the the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory and the first area to be affected by the disease.

Whether eating more olive oil will protect people from developing Alzheimer's disease is not clear from the research, but the results could point the way towards developing new drugs to prevent and treat Alzheimer's, the scientists said.

"The findings may help identify effective preventative measures and lead to improved therapeutics in the fight against Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Paul Breslin, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and lead author of the investigation in a statement.

Olive oil is a major component of the Mediterranean diet and there is some evidence that adhering to a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to the UK's National Institute of Health.

Meanwhile, previous studies have shown that natural compounds such as curcuma, an anti-inflammatory agent found in the curry spice turmeric, resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and red wine, and the herb ginkgo biloba may also ward off Alzheimer's disease.

The report is published in the October issue of the The Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.