Laboratory study supports the hypothesis that memories are encoded with the help of chemical labels on the DNA.
The brain still harbours many unknowns. Basically, it is assumed that it stores experiences by altering the connections between brain cells. This ability to adapt – which is also called “plasticity” – provides the basis for memory and learning, which is the ability to draw conclusions from memories. On a molecular scale these changes are mediated by modifications of expression of specific genes that as required strengthen or weaken the connections between the brain cells.
In the current study, a research team led by Dr. Stefan Bonn and Prof. André Fischer from Göttingen, joined forces with colleagues from the DZNE’s Munich site, to examine how the activity of such genes is regulated. The scientists stimulated long-term memory in mice by training the animals to recognise a specific test environment. Based on tissue samples, the researchers were able to discern to what extent this learning task triggered changes in the activity of the genes in the mice’s brain cells. Their focus was directed on so-called epigenetic modifications. These modifications involve the DNA and DNA associated proteins.
“The cell makes use of various mechanisms in order to turn genes on or off, without altering the DNA sequence itself. It’s called ‘epigenetics’,” explains Dr. Magali Hennion, a staff member of the research group of Stefan Bonn.
In principle, gene regulation can happen through methylation, whereby the backbone of the DNA is chemically labeled at specific sites. Changes in the proteins called histones that are packaging the DNA may also occur.
Hennion: “Research on epigenetic changes that are related to memory processes is still at an early stage. We look at such features, not only for the purpose of a better understanding of how memory works. We also look for potential targets for drugs that may counteract memory decline. Ultimately, our research is about therapies against Alzheimer’s and similar brain diseases.”
A code for memory contents?
In the current study the researchers found modifications, both of the histones as well as of the methylation of the DNA. However, histone modifications had little effect on the activity of genes involved in neuroplasticity. Furthermore, Bonn and his colleagues not only discovered epigenetic modifications in nerve cells, but also in non-neuronal cells of the brain.
“The relevance of non-neuronal cells for memory, is an interesting topic that we will continue to pursue”, says André Fischer, site speaker for the DZNE in Göttingen and professor at the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG). „Furthermore, our observations suggest that neuroplasticity is to a large extent regulated by DNA methylation. Although this is not a new hypothesis, our study provides an unprecedented amount of supporting evidence for this. Thus, methylation may indeed be an important molecular constituent of long-term memory. In such a case, methylation could be a sort of code for memory content and a potential target for therapies against Alzheimer’s disease. This is an aspect that we specifically want to focus on, in further studies.”
About this memory and genetics research
Source: Marcus Neitzert – DZNE Image Credit: The image is in the public domain Original Research:Abstract for “DNA methylation changes in plasticity genes accompany the formation and maintenance of memory” by Rashi Halder, Magali Hennion, Ramon O. Vidal, Orr Shomroni, Raza-Ur Rahman, Ashish Rajput, Tonatiuh Pena Centeno, Frauke van Bebber, Vincenzo Capece, Julio C. Garcia Vizcaino, Anna-Lena Schuetz, Susanne Burkhardt, Eva Benito, Magdalena Navarro Sala, Sanaz Bahari Javan, Christian Haass, Bettina Schmid, Andre Fischer, and Stefan Bonn in Nature Neuroscience. Published online December 14 2015 doi:10.1038/nn.4194
DNA methylation changes in plasticity genes accompany the formation and maintenance of memory
The ability to form memories is a prerequisite for an organism’s behavioral adaptation to environmental changes. At the molecular level, the acquisition and maintenance of memory requires changes in chromatin modifications. In an effort to unravel the epigenetic network underlying both short- and long-term memory, we examined chromatin modification changes in two distinct mouse brain regions, two cell types and three time points before and after contextual learning. We found that histone modifications predominantly changed during memory acquisition and correlated surprisingly little with changes in gene expression. Although long-lasting changes were almost exclusive to neurons, learning-related histone modification and DNA methylation changes also occurred in non-neuronal cell types, suggesting a functional role for non-neuronal cells in epigenetic learning. Finally, our data provide evidence for a molecular framework of memory acquisition and maintenance, wherein DNA methylation could alter the expression and splicing of genes involved in functional plasticity and synaptic wiring.
“DNA methylation changes in plasticity genes accompany the formation and maintenance of memory” by Rashi Halder, Magali Hennion, Ramon O. Vidal, Orr Shomroni, Raza-Ur Rahman, Ashish Rajput, Tonatiuh Pena Centeno, Frauke van Bebber, Vincenzo Capece, Julio C. Garcia Vizcaino, Anna-Lena Schuetz, Susanne Burkhardt, Eva Benito, Magdalena Navarro Sala, Sanaz Bahari Javan, Christian Haass, Bettina Schmid, Andre Fischer, and Stefan Bonn in Nature Neuroscience. Published online December 14 2015 doi:10.1038/nn.4194