Researchers from around the world have been partnering in an effort to isolate genes responsible for a person’s vulnerability to things like Alzheimer’s disease or mental illness. Begun at UCLA, the international research team has worked on the largest scale ever to identify the genes most influential on a person’s mental health.
Looking For Genes Connected to Brain Size as a Marker For Mental Health
The study aimed to discover two main objectives. First the researchers were looking for genes connected to a single heritable disease and second they searched out factors which contribute to brain tissue atrophy and a reduction in brain size. These are considered markers for heritable conditions such as Alzheimer’s depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dementia.
An International Effort and Worldwide Data Base
Geneticists from Australia, Holland and the United States collaborated on an initiative called ENIGMA (enhancing neuro imaging genetics through meta-analysis) whose goal was to share brain scan and genome data with other scientists around the globe. Such a comprehensive collection of data was predicted to reveal a better picture of genetic variations and patterns and how they impact the brain in physical ways (larger or smaller brains).
Prior studies have been done which identified "risk" genes for certain commonly occurring diseases, but this was the first large scale study undertaken to investigate how the genes impact the brain (shielding/protecting or making it vulnerable).
Brain Imaging Plus DNA Revealed Specific Gene Activity
Combining the brain images and DNA information from literally tens of thousands of study subjects from around the world gave researchers an unprecedented pool of data from which to conduct their research. They could now observe genes which had similar impact regardless of country or environment. Searching through the DNA information for people with images of smaller brains, the team discovered a pattern of changes in the gene code which related directly to decreases in memory regions.
Literally millions of individuals carry genetic variations which make them either more or less susceptible to certain diseases. The ability to identify genes which directly impact a person’s vulnerability to a disease means that drug treatments for those diseases can become more highly targeted. Even non-pharmaceutical strategies to counteract a bad gene’s effect will be impacted by the results of this broad study.
Team Also Discovered Genetic Spot For Determining Individual Intelligence
As important as it is to identify which genes shield the brain from these diseases and which actually precipitate them, the data gathered yielded other important information. Because they were looking specifically at brain size, the team was also able to identify a specific gene variation which directly impacts individual brain size and even intelligence. The collaborative team hopes to check out how genes affect brain wiring next.