Investigators from The Roslin Institute, at the University of Edinburgh have discovered that during the lifetime of an individual, brain cells change their genetic make-up. This finding could offer new insight into neurological diseases. The study is published in the journal Nature and was conduced together with researchers from Italy, The Netherlands, the United States, Japan and Australia.

The researchers identified genes known as retrotransponsons – which are responsible for thousands of tiny alterations in the DNA of brain tissue. They discovered that the genes were especially active in areas of the brain associated with cell regeneration.

The researchers then mapped the locations of these genes in the human genome, allowing them to identify mutations that impact on brain function and that might cause the development of diseases.

Dr. Geoff Faulkner, of The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, explained:

“This research completely overturns the belief that the genetic make-up of brain cells remains static throughout life and provides us with new information about how the brain works.

If we can understand better how these subtle genetic changes occur we could shed light on how brain cells regenerate, how processes like memory formation may have a genetic basis and possible link the activity of these genes to brain diseases.”

This is the first investigation to reveal that brain cells are genetically different to other cells within the body. In addition the study reveals that the genes are also genetically distinct from each other.

The scientists are now trying to find out whether brain tumor formation and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s are linked to alterations in retrotransposon activity.

The study received funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

Written by: Grace Rattue