New Discovery of Brain DNA Changes Has Far-Reaching Implications

Scientists have commonly believed that the DNA of non-dividing adult brain cells remains largely stable, with changes occurring very infrequently. While this belief seems logical, a new report appearing in the October issue of Nature Neuroscience provides evidence that these non-dividing brain cells actually undergo large-scale changes in response to stimulated brain activity. This finding has significant implications for a variety of disease, including psychiatric diseases and neurodegenerative disorders.

The researchers, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, had previously found that electric brain stimulation, such as the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sometimes used to treat depression, caused increased brain cell growth in mice. In this study, they again stimulated the brains of live mice using electric shock. The researchers then looked at cytosines--one particular building block of DNA--from the stimulated neurons and compared them to neurons in mice without brain stimulation. What they discovered is that about 1.4% of the cytosines measured showed rapid active demethylation or became newly methylated after being stimulated.

These changes--adding or removing a methyl group at a specific location--chemically alters DNA and can change gene expression, allowing cells with the same genetic code to function differently.

"It was mind-boggling to see that so many methylation sites - thousands of sites - had changed in status as a result of brain activity," said researcher Hongjun Song of Johns Hopkins. "We used to think that the brain's epigenetic DNA methylation landscape was as stable as mountains and more recently realized that maybe it was a bit more subject to change, perhaps like trees occasionally bent in a storm. But now we show it is most of all like a river that reacts to storms of activity by moving and changing fast."

Source: Medical News Today

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