It’s a common catch-all to simply attribute characteristics to our genes. Is your friend really pretty? She must have great genes. Does your friend have a history of weight gain? It’s probably her genes, we nod wisely. But do we really understand the incredible potential of these things we call genes? As it turns out, the expression of genes is not always fixed— they can be switched on and switched off depending on environmental cues. Epigenetics is the field dedicated to this area of study and recent advances in the field have given us a deeper understanding of what it looks inside your brain as genes are being turned off. Previously, researchers were only able to observe this “gene silencing” mechanism in the brains of those who had passed away. Chemist Jacob Hooker and his associates at the Massachusetts General Hospital developed a technique that allows observation of the silencing of genes in living people and conducted a study on eight living patients with no history of brain problems to map where this particular brain activity was most likely to occur. They hope that it will provide a new angle from which to understand gene-related mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, and Rett syndrome.
In Hooker’s study, he found that the cerebellum and putamen tended to have the most dominant presence of gene silencing molecules. Both brain areas have to do with movement and coordination and the putamen facilitates learning. In general, brain areas with smallest amounts of gene silencing molecules were the hippocampus, which manages the creation of memory, and the amygdala, which is an emotional processing center. One explanation of this phenomenon reasons that the diminished prevalence of gene silencing molecules in these areas would lead to these areas being the most respondent to environmental cues. Such environmental cues might include changing the diet or developing a habit of playing games that require problem solving. Researchers were most excited by the similarity between the eight subject’s maps showing the areas in the brain absent of and heavily dominated by gene silencing molecules. This similarity led Hooker to the belief that gene activation must be a uniform step by step process across the board, meaning that if the pattern was known, doctors might be able to diagnose the precursory steps to gene-silencing mental illnesses before they manifested. Gene-expression patterns have already been taken using Hooker’s technique on patients with schizophrenia and patients with Huntington’s. The team plans to map patients with Alzheimer’s next.
This is an exciting new technology that offers promise in the area of mental health. Taking it further may allow us to give earlier diagnoses of patients with mental illnesses, and perhaps, one day, even halt or reverse the progress of some brain diseases. Taken together, the knowledge that we can create new neurons in our brains (neurogenesis), that we can rewire our brains (neuroplasticity) and that we can turn on and turn off genes (epigenetics) related to our thoughts and behaviors should give us great hope that we can choose our destiny based on the the choices we make.