Scientists have developed a new imaging method which can reveal the gene activity in the brains of living people. The technique has the potential to reveal early signs of mental disorders like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. It could improve the diagnostic and lead to early and better treatment for these types of conditions.
Brain epigenetics is the study of which genes are turned on or off in different structures has garnered a lot of interest lately since scientists realized that the pattern of gene activation in brains is related to brain disorders that are hard to diagnose from just external symptoms. It even includes depression and addiction. Epigenetics can also reveal how life events like tragedy, trauma and other various experiences cause changes in our brains.
Before the current technology, scientists could only detect gene activations in dead brains. According to Jacob Hooker, a chemist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and leader of the study:
“Gene activity is so responsive to the environment, we simply can’t study it outside of its natural context. [Dead] brains and living brains will look very different.”
The new imaging technique is a type of PET scan. IT uses radioactive tracers to highlight the working functions of the brain by attaching a tracer to the glucose used by the brain for energy. The new technology uses a molecule called MartinoStat, which attaches to enzymes capable of switching off and on the genes in the brain.
The research team used the newly discovered technique to not only confirm they can observe gene activation in living brains, but they even managed to discover where the gene-silencing enzyme is found in the brain of eight healthy people. The patterns of gene-silencing were similar in all the healthy patients.
Comparing the patterns in healthy brains with those diagnosed with various mental disorders can help scientists determine what gene-silencing patterns are specific to certain conditions. After the diagnosis, scientists hope that the new imaging method can point the way to better treatments as well. The imaging technique, however, cannot identify which specific genes are being turned off.
The research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine has caught the interest of the biotech industry. Rodin Therapeutics, a start—up from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working on developing drugs that inhibit the gene-silencing enzyme and thus possibly treat the mental diseases it causes
Do you know anyone affected by mental disorders? What do you think about this new imaging method?
Image source: Science as Translational Medicine