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Nature and nurture work together to shape the brain

Washington Scientists presented new research today demonstrating the impact life experiences can have on genes and behavior. The studies examine how such environmental information can be transmitted from one generation to the next a phenomenon known as epigenetics. This new knowledge could ultimately improve understanding of brain plasticity, the cognitive benefits of motherhood, and how a parent's exposure to drugs, alcohol, and stress can alter brain development and behavior in their offspring.

The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2011, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Today's new findings show that:

  • Brain cell activation changes a protein involved in turning genes on and off, suggesting the protein may play a role in brain plasticity (Ian Maze, PhD, abstract 660.03, see attached summary).
  • Prenatal exposure to amphetamines and alcohol produces abnormal numbers of chromosomes in fetal mouse brains. The findings suggest these abnormal counts may contribute to the developmental defects seen in children exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero (Jerold Chun, MD, PhD, abstract 166.04, see attached summary).
  • Cocaine-induced changes in the brain may be inheritable. Sons of male rats exposed to cocaine are resistant to the rewarding effects of the drug (Chris Pierce, PhD, abstract 371.05, see attached summary).
  • Motherhood protects female mice against some of the negative effects of stress (Tracey Shors, PhD, abstract 219.12, see attached summary).

Another recent finding discussed shows that:

  • Mice conceived through breeding but not those conceived through reproductive technologies show anxiety-like and depressive-like behaviors similar to their fathers. The findings call into question how these behaviors are transmitted across generations (David Dietz, PhD, see attached speaker's summary).

"Research in the last few years has dramatically changed what we know about how behaviors are inherited," said press conference moderator Flora Vaccarino, MD, from Yale University, an expert on the developing brain. "Today's findings show how our genes and environment work together to influence brain development throughout a lifetime."


Contact: Kat Snodgrass
Society for Neuroscience

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