New human and animal research released today demonstrates how experiences impact genes that influence behavior and health. Today’s studies, presented at a press conference of Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health, provide new insights into how experience might produce long-term brain changes in behaviors like drug addiction and memory formation. 30,000 scientists are attending this meeting in San Diego. Years of heroin abuse may change how genes are expressed and how the brain functions, according to new human research described today in a news conference organized by the Society of Neuroscience. The studies focus on an area of research called epigenetics, in which the environment and experiences can turn genes “on” or “off,” while keeping underlying DNA intact. These changes affect normal brain processes, such as development or memory, and abnormal brain processes, such as depression, drug dependence, and other psychiatric disease — and can be passed down to subsequent generations. According to the World Health Organization, 9.5 million people abuse heroin around the world, which increases their risk of death by 20 to 30 times compared to that of non-drug users. “Our study addresses a critical gap in our knowledge about heroin addiction because we cannot often directly study the brains of addicted humans,” said senior author Yasmin Hurd, Ph.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Our results provide important insights into how human brains change in response to long-term heroin use, and give us to knowledge to help treat this dangerous disease.” Dr.
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