Head injuries can alter hundreds of genes in the brain, leading to a wide variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders, according to new study by scientists from UCLA.
The study, which was published in EBioMedicine, identified master genes that influence hundreds other genes linked to a number of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression, schizophrenia and other disorders, the UCLA Newsroom reports.
Being able to identify these genes not only provides scientists more opportunities to target new pharmaceuticals that could help them treat certain brain diseases, it may also give them a workable process in re-modifying damaged genes to reduce the risk of neurological disorders. To top it off, the study may lead to opportunities that can help researchers identify chemical compounds and foods that can repair altered genes, thus fighting the diseases they are linked to.
“We believe these master genes are responsible for traumatic brain injury adversely triggering changes in many other genes,” said Xia Yang, the study’s senior author and a UCLA associate professor of integrative biology and physiology.
Yang said that head injuries can change the genes of a brain in two ways. First, the traumatic head injury can cause the genes to produce proteins of irregular forms. Second, the injury can change the number of expresses copies of a gene in each cell. However the change may have come about, the head injury causes the gene to stop working properly. A gene that produces the wrong kind of protein, for instance, can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
“Very little is known about how people with brain trauma — like football players and soldiers —
develop neurological disorders later in life,” said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, co-senior author of the study and professor of neurosurgery and of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. “We hope to learn much more about how this occurs.”
The researchers at UCLA trained 20 rats to escape from a maze and then used a type of fluid that produces a concussion-like brain injury on half of them. They discovered that the rats that sustained brain injuries took 25-percent longer to escape the maze than those that didn’t.
The team then drew RNA from the rats’ hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating learning and memory, and from leukocytes, white blood cells that play a key role in the immune system. They found that the rats that sustained brain injuries had a core group of 268 genes in their hippocampus altered, whereas a core group 0f 1,215 genes in the leukocytes had been changed.
“A surprise was how many major changes occurred to genes in the blood cells,” Yang said. “The changes in the brain were less surprising. It’s such a critical region, so it makes sense that when it’s damaged, it signals to the body that it’s under attack.”
Researchers also discovered that nearly two dozen of the changed genes had been found in both the hippocampus and the blood, which they say presents the possibility of a gene-based blood test being able to determine whether a brain injury has occurred following a head trauma. This methodology may also make it possible for doctors to predict whether a head injury may lead to particular neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. The new study has opened up a new avenue for helping doctors diagnose mild traumatic injuries better.
The researchers are now looking closely into the master genes identified in the study to find out whether it’s possible to cause changes in other genes through modifications. In that case, the master genes present many opportunities for new treatments. They also have their sights on studying the phenomenon in people who have suffered from brain injuries.
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