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Scientists discover genetic timetable of brain’s aging process

Brain scientists have identified a genetic programme that controls the way our brain changes throughout life.

Image of brain and genes
©iStock.com/kirstypargeter

The programme controls how and when brain genes are expressed at different times in a person’s life to perform a range of functions, the study found.

Experts say the timing is so precise that they can tell the age of a person by looking at the genes that are expressed in a sample of brain tissue.

Gene expression

Scientists analysed existing data which measured gene expression in brain tissue samples from across the human lifespan – from development in the womb up to 78 years of age.

They found the timing of when different genes are expressed follows a strict pattern across the lifespan.

“These changes are not random but occur according to a calendar or timetable of events across the lifespan. We call this discovery the genetic life span calendar.”

Professor Seth GrantHead of the Genes to Cognition Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh

Brain programme

Most of the changes in gene expression in the brain were completed by middle-age, the study found.

The gene programme is delayed slightly in women compared with men, suggesting that the female brain ages more slowly than the male.

 Schizophrenia link

The biggest reorganisation of genes occurs during young adulthood, peaking around age 26, the team found. These changes affected the same genes that are associated with schizophrenia.

The team says this could explain why people with schizophrenia do not show symptoms until young adulthood, even though the genetic changes responsible for the condition are present from birth.

Rather than thinking of its causes being related to environment or lifestyle, we are now considering it to be more like a genetic time bomb. The genes are present from the time of conception but don’t do their damage to the brain until the mid-twenties when they get switched on by the calendar.

Professor Seth Grant

Shared pattern

The study found the genetic programme is present in mice too, although it changes more rapidly across their shorter lifespan. This suggests that the calendar of brain aging is shared between all mammals and may be millions of years old.

Future studies

Researchers next plan to study how the genetic programme is controlled, which could lead to therapies that alter the course of brain aging, the scientists say.

It could also hold clues to new treatments for schizophrenia and other mental health problems in young adults.

Now that we can measure this genetic lifespan calendar we might be able to find ways to control the aging of the brain and to control how those changes occur in the young adult. This could potentially contribute to whole new types of drugs to treat schizophrenia.

Professor Seth Grant

The research, published in the journal eLife, was funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme.

Related links

Journal article

Edinburgh Neuroscience

Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences

Edinburgh Medical School

Image credit: ©iStock.com/kirstypargeter