The May edition of top brain research journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience is available online for anyone who completes the free site registration.
The issue contains a round-up of recent neuroscience news, as well as some in-depth reviews of depth perception, the genetics of nervous system development, olfactory memory in fruit flies, neural cycle cyle regulation and a fantastic article on the epigenetics of psychiatric disorder.
Epigenetics describes the process of how genes actually ‘do their work’.
DNA has two main functions. The ‘template function’ of DNA is to pass on genes through generations and allow different traits to be inherited.
The ‘transcriptional function’ of DNA is to allow these genes to be expressed at appropriate times and places (and not expressed at others) so the work can be done.
Almost every cell in the body has a copy of the DNA and, therefore, all the genes, but there are many types of cells with many diverse functions.
This is because not all genes are transcribed and expressed at once. Genes are expressed selectively.
This allows the body to have a diverse range of differently structured cells, and it allows the same cells to do different work at different times.
In a famous 1998 paper, Kandel noted that the transcriptional function of genes, that determines which proteins are expressed at any particular time, can be regulated by social, environmental and experiential (learning-based) factors.
This is why epigenetics is so important, because it is one way of understanding how genes and the environment interact.
We know that it is possible to inherit a variable risk for mental illness, and that life experiences are likely to combine with this risk to trigger mental illness in some people.
The Nature Reviews Neuroscience article looks at the latest research on how this occurs and how it might be different in various types of psychiatric disorder.