Just Another Teachin’ Tuesday: Epigenetics…very hot stuff!

What the heck is epigenetics? Great question. I suppose an even better question would be, “Who cares?” Well, if you’re enduring a mood disorder, you probably do (whether you know it, or not).

Okay, epigenetics is the study of the factors influencing the switching on and off of parts of the genome at strategic times and locations – as well as the intensity of these “ons and offs.” And this subject matter is just huge because it’s this activity that orchestrates the very development and maintenance of an organism – including us. To be clear, this is about heritable information within cells that doesn’t involve the DNA sequence itself. Rather, it’s an issue of, shall we say, “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” of the expression of the DNA.

Well, it’s been known for some time that colon cancer and breast cancer genes are regulated by epigenetics. But now it’s time to move upstairs to the brain. And how cool is it that research is telling us epigenetic marks can be influenced by environmental factors? Hmmm – so if that’s the case, could stress be one of these factors? It looks that way.

How ’bout this study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center? It suggests epigenetic changes can, indeed, be induced by stress in adulthood. In the lab, adult mice exposed to highly aggressive neighbors became socially avoidant, defeated, and subordinate. Do those sound like symptoms of depression?

Well, researchers showed the mice developed histone (protein inside the nucleus that manipulates DNA) changes in a depression-related gene; and these changes were reversed by the antidepressant, imipramine (Tofranil). There’s also evidence that other antidepressants, (tranylcypromine) Parnate and (fluoxetine) Prozac, for example, can also alter histone marks. And hey – do you endure bipolar disorder? The widely prescribed mood-stabilizer, valproic acid (Depakote), influences histones, as well.

I’m so heartened by this fascinating epigenetics research. And I’m thrilled there’s a place like the Johns Hopkins Epigenetic Center that continues to crank-out incredible work, targeting how epigenetics may play a role in depression, bipolarity, and stress. And, of course, the bottom-line is, it’s this kind of research that leads to powerful and efficacious treatments.

As always, chipur readers, your comments are valuable! Won’t you contribute?