Thursday, May 22, 2008

Neuroscience and epigenetics

Chris has a new site up at If you read his site, redirect your links there.

The quality and frequency of my posting has been rather shitty these days, mostly because I have a lot to deal with.

Anyway, here's a real post.

Epigenetics is the ancillary system of your genes which causes them to be expressed in different locations by different stimuli. For example, it is why you are not a blob of uniform cells, but rather a person made of different types of cells which have the exact same genetic information.

There are a few terms in epigenetics you should be familiar with if you want to know anything about it:

- DNA methylation: DNA methylation is the addition of a methyl group to the carbon-5 position of cytosine residues ('residue', in this context, is a fancy word for an individual nucleic acid) that are followed by a guanine (at least, in 99% of cases of methylation ). A methylated cytosine followed by a guanine is called a CpG dinucleotide. The human genome doesn't have a lot, which is due to the deamination of these methyl-cytosine complexes, which are called 5-methylcytosine. This is important in cancer.

- DNA histone: DNA histone is the stuff that makes DNA curl into chromatin - if you didn't have histones, you would almost certainly not be alive, because without histones, DNA is a 1.8-meter long tangled mess of crap. With histones, DNA condenses into 90-millimeter bits of chromatin that are tightly packed in the nucleus, which is more condensed into 90-micrometer chromosomes during mitosis. Different folding of histones would change the folding of DNA.

- Transcription factors: Transcription factors enable the replication and transcribing of DNA into RNA, which is translated into proteins.

- Prions: Prions are proteins gone nuts. They can infect cells and catalytically convert other native state versions of the same protein to the infectious state.

Why is epigenetics so important in neuroscience? Epigenetic abnormalities cause a number of neurological issues, and has been implicated in a number of seemingly non-developmentally-related conditions such as schizophrenia (which is sort of our favorite illness to speculate about the causes of, as it is very poorly understood and very devastating and very interesting in its symptoms.) It is indeed also a factor in neural stem cell developmental issues, and is also implicated in differences in things such as intelligence.

Much research has been devoted to the role of epigenetics in psychiatric disorders. It's going to become much more important in the next few years; I suspect those of my fellow neuroscience people who investigate the psychiatric will do more gene-based research surrounding these things.

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