"Earlier studies have uncovered risk genes for common diseases, yet it's not always understood how these genes affect the brain," explained Thompson. "This led our team to screen brain scans worldwide for genes that directly harm or protect the brain."
In poring over the data, Project ENIGMA researchers explored whether any genetic variations correlated to brain size. In particular, the scientists looked for gene variants that deplete brain tissue beyond normal in a healthy person. The sheer scale of the project allowed the team to unearth new genetic variants in people who have bigger brains as well as differences in regions critical to learning and memory.
When the scientists zeroed in on the DNA of people whose images showed smaller brains, they found a consistent relationship between subtle shifts in the genetic code and diminished memory centers. Furthermore, the same genes affected the brain in the same ways in people across diverse populations from Australia, North America and Europe, suggesting new molecular targets for drug development.
"Millions of people carry variations in their DNA that help boost or lower their brains' susceptibility to a vast range of diseases," said Thompson. "Once we identify the gene, we can target it with a drug to reduce the risk of disease. People also can take preventive steps through exercise, diet and mental stimulation to erase the effects of a bad gene."
In an intriguing twist, Project ENIGMA investigators also discovered genes that explain individual differences in intelligence. They found that a variant in a gene called HMGA2 affected brain size as well as a person's intelligence.
DNA is comprised of four bases: A, C, T and G. People whose HMGA2 gene held a letter "C" instead of "
|Contact: Elaine Schmidt|
University of California - Los Angeles Health Sciences