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Genetic program helps with understanding brain disease

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Research results recently published in the journal eLife explain a genetic program that controls how and when brain genes are expressed at different times in a person’s life to perform a range of functions.

Researchers say the timing of the genetic program is so precise they can tell the age of a person by looking at the genes that are expressed in a sample of brain tissue.

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and the European Union Seventh Framework Program.

Scientists analysed existing data that measured gene expression in brain tissue samples from across the human lifespan – from development in the womb up to 78 years of age.

They found the timing of when different genes are expressed follows a strict pattern across the lifespan.

Most of the changes in gene expression in the brain were completed by middle-age.

The gene program is delayed slightly in women compared with men, the study found, suggesting the female brain ages more slowly than the male.

The biggest reorganisation of genes occurs during young adulthood, peaking around age 26. These changes affected the same genes that are associated with schizophrenia.

The research team said that finding could explain why people with schizophrenia do not show symptoms until young adulthood, even though the genetic changes responsible for the condition are present from birth.

The findings could hold clues to new treatments for schizophrenia and other mental health problems in young adults. The next step for the researchers is to study how the genetic program is controlled, which could potentially lead to therapies that alter the course of brain aging.

Professor Seth Grant, Head of the Genes to Cognition Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The discovery of this genetic program opens up a completely new way to understand behaviour and brain diseases throughout life.”

Dr Nathan Skene, Research Scientist at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, said: “Many people believe our brain simply wears out as we age. But our study suggests that brain aging is strictly controlled by our genes.”

CHRIS JOHNSON

 

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