Head Injuries Change Hundreds of Genes Related to Mental Diseases

Head injuries can alter hundreds of genes that are associated with a high risk for certain neurological and psychiatric conditions. Scientists are hopeful that these genes can be fixed through those that control them, the master genes. The new findings are published in EBioMedicine.

Discovered for the first time, these “master genes” are thought to control hundreds of other genes which are linked with conditions and diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke, ADHD, autism, depression and schizophrenia. When head injuries cause modifications in them, the person affected has a greater risk of developing the said diseases.

Senior author of the study, Fernando Gomez-Pinilla from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), explains that their study will enable them to learn more about how brain trauma can eventually lead to the development of neurological disorders; he mentions brain injuries sustained by football players and soldiers as examples. This research is, therefore, of great pertinence to the field of medicine because understanding the master genes could allow scientists to better treat brain diseases by re-modifying damaged genes.

Senior author Xia Yang from UCLA explains the modifications in genes following traumatic brain trauma can happen in different ways:

  1. Injuries can cause the genes to express distorted proteins.
  2. Or, the number of expressed copies of a gene in cells can be changed.

Genes encode the information for the synthesis of specific proteins which are involved in body activities. The malfunction of genes can lead to the production of the ‘wrong’ proteins, which, in turn, leads to malfunctions in the cell. The above two changes can stop a gene from functioning properly; for instance, if a particular one results in a deformed protein, Alzheimer’s disease can be developed.

It is to be noted that the modified genes are found in both the brain (more specifically in the hippocampus, the brain area related to learning and memory) and the blood. Yang comments that the former location (the brain) is less surprising that the latter one (the blood) because of it being a “critical region”. Also, this finding might be used to generate a gene-based blood test to identify the occurrence of brain injuries. Furthermore, the researchers explain that measuring these genes could assist medical practitioners to forecast the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and other similar conditions in their patients, and to diagnose mild traumatic brain injury.

The team is now focusing their efforts on the master genes with the aim of deciphering whether they can be made targets for new treatments: perhaps, modified genes can be fixed?

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