For the first time, scientists have tracked the activity, across the lifespan, of an environmentally responsive regulatory mechanism that turns genes on and off in the brain's executive hub. Among key findings of the study by National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists: genes implicated in schizophrenia and autism turn out to be members of a select club of genes in which regulatory activity peaks during an environmentally-sensitive critical period in development. The mechanism, called DNA methylation, abruptly switches from off to on within the human brain's prefrontal cortex during this pivotal transition from fetal to postnatal life. As methylation increases, gene expression slows down after birth. Epigenetic mechanisms like methylation leave chemical instructions that tell genes what proteins to make –what kind of tissue to produce or what functions to activate. Although not part of our DNA, these instructions are inherited from our parents. But they are also influenced by environmental factors, allowing for change throughout the lifespan. "Developmental brain disorders may be traceable to altered methylation of genes early in life," explained Dr. Barbara Lipska, a scientist in the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and lead author of the study. "For example, genes that code for the enzymes that carry out methylation have been implicated in schizophrenia. In the prenatal brain, these genes help to shape developing circuitry for learning, memory, and other executive functions which become disturbed in the disorders. Our study reveals that methylation in a family of these genes changes dramatically during the transition from fetal to postnatal life – and that this process is influenced by methylation itself, as well as genetic variability.
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