DNA Methylation

A first link between chronic stress, genetics, and mental illness has recently observed in mice. Researchers have discovered that the genes of mice exposed to chronic stress change over time. Modifications were most associated with genes related to a variety of mental illnesses, such as depression, autism spectrum disorder, and schizophrenia.1-3

How exactly are genetics, stress, and mental illness related? DNA, serves as instructions for cells and is broken up into functional units called genes. The interplay between DNA and the environment is what makes each person unique. Environmental factors can cause DNA to be temporarily modified, without changing the sequence, to alter how it is read. Epigenetics, meaning “attached to the DNA”, is the study of such modifications.

Although the authors could not explain how this modification occurs, Nicholas Warren, a Ph.D. candidate at Dartmouth College, added that modification “appears to be a highly regulated process which scientists could manipulate by developing drugs to target it. This could lead to new therapies for neurological disorders, but will likely take several decades to do so.”

Similar DNA modifications have been seen in the brains of clinically depressed people who committed suicide.4 More research is needed on this connection, but it’s the first step to better understanding these disorders.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Nicholas Warren, Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine at Dartmouth College, for his commentary on the implications of this epigenetic modification.

Managing Correspondent: Chelsea Weidman

References:

  1. DNA N6-methyladenine is dynamically regulated in the mouse brain following environmental stress. Nature Communications.
  2. Mysterious DNA modification seen in stress response. Emory Health Sciences Center.
  3. A Strange New DNA Edit Has Been Discovered in Animals Under Stress. Science Alert.
  4. Increased DNA methylation in the suicide brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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