Undercover genetics and the function of the brain

Science News has an article on one of the most important future topics in neuroscience – epigenetics, the science of how information coded in the genes is used when the brain does its work.

Almost every cell in the body has a copy of the DNA, and therefore has the capability to express any protein.

But you wouldn’t want proteins that are used for digesting food produced in the brain, so the body has various ways of regulating which proteins get expressed at any one time. This is epigenetics.

If DNA is like a blueprint, epigenetics is the committee of civil engineers that coordinate the construction site.

We’ve known from twin studies and molecular genetic research that genes and the environment both influence cognition and behaviour, but these studies only give statistical associations. What they don’t tell us is how this happens.

In a sense, epigenetics is the scientific glue that allows us to understand how genes influence learning and behaviour, but also how learning and behaviour influences the expression of genes.

In other words, its goal is to explain how the environment combines with genetic information in the brain.

Needless to say, much epigenetic research is focusing on mental illness, the classic example of how genetic risk, experience and environment combine with sometimes disastrous consequences.

One of the most interesting aspects is that there is growing evidence that epigenetic information can be inherited. So your experiences may actually cause changes to gene regulation that are then passed on to offspring.

Link to Science New article on epigenetics.
Link to abstract of good review article on epigenetics and cognition.

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