31 Mar It’s not just the cards you’re dealt, it’s also how you play your hand.
About nine months before you were born, a gazillion of your father’s sperm swam blindly towards an unsuspecting egg. The egg itself was one of many millions that could have been floating down your mother’s fallopian tube. They met. They merged. The result was your unique DNA, never before and never again to be seen in this universe. You had no control over how the deck was shuffled or the genetic hand you were dealt.
Well, you can’t trade in your DNA. But you may have some control over which of the myriad genes that are ensconced in each of your brain cells are expressed. Many of your genes come with an on/off switch. If a gene is turned on, it will make a protein. That protein will have some effect on your cell and, ultimately, your overall health. If a gene is turned off, it will remain silent. If the gene is silenced, even if you have the DNA code to make a protein, it won’t be made. The process of gene regulation is called epigenetics.
The genetic gatekeeper of the brain: REST
There’s a delicate balance in your brain that depends upon which genes are turned on or off. Genes must be activated to produce proteins within the neurons (brain cells) and then deactivated before they produce too much. Your brain cells have mechanisms to regulate the activity of neuronal DNA. One gatekeeper molecule, that controls whether genes actively produce protein, is called restrictive element 1-silencing transcription factor (REST). REST, a master regulator with it’s hand on the on/off switch, fine-tunes brain DNA. Thus, REST is critical for proper brain development and function.
Higher cognitive functions, such as learning and memory, depend on the proper functioning of REST. If REST works properly the brain is able to overcome life’s stresses through neuroplasticity (the ability of brain cells and wiring to grow and change) and detoxification.
If REST malfunctions, the brain is liable to be overrun by problems, such as accumulation of toxic proteins (such as β-amyloid). If the process breaks down your brain function may suffer and you may even develop progressive neurodegenerative disorders and diseases (including stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease).
Whether or not your brain ages normally may also depend on REST. An error catastrophe may occur if there is a bad REST malfunction; the protein balance in brain cells gets too out of whack. The neurons (brain cells) may be overwhelmed by oxidative stress and protein toxicity. This may cause the brain to age prematurely. Researchers are working on drugs that target REST with the hope of preserving brain function as you age or even reverse age related brain declines (senility or dementia).
What can I do about it?
Not satisfied with the DNA you were born with? You may have the power to change that!
REST function is not set in stone. By improving your diet and lifestyle, you may affect REST function and thus which genes are turned on and off (epigenetics). Regular exercise may modify gene expression in your neurons (brain cells) and may delay the cognitive and memory decline of aging and may prevent brain degenerative disease (Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis).
Want to give your kids the best DNA possible?
Some epigenetics (genetic changes) may be heritable (passed on to the next generation).
Stress can change the DNA of your brain.
Stress can affect REST function. Identical twins suffer from anxiety, depression and substance abuse at different rates. Even though they were born with the exact same DNA, stressful events in their lives may have turned on or off different genes (epigenetics). The master glands of the brain (hypothalamic-pituitary-axis) are affected by life stressors and may emit hormones that make permanent epigenetic changes in the DNA of the brain, which can cause psychiatric issues.