Short snippets of DNA found in human brain tissue provide new insight into human cognitive function and risk for developing certain neurological diseases, according to researchers from the Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The findings are published in the November 20th issue of PLoS Biology.
There are nearly 40 million positions in the human genome with DNA sequences that are different than those in non-human primates, making the task of learning which are important and which are inconsequential a challenge for scientists. Rather than comparing these sequences strand by strand, Schahram Akbarian, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, wanted to identify the crucial set of differences between the two genomes by looking more broadly at the chromatin, the structure that packages the DNA and controls how it is expressed.
They found hundreds of regions throughout the human genome which showed a markedly different chromatin structure in neurons in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that controls complex emotional and cognitive behavior, compared to non-human primates. The findings of the study provide important insights for diseases that are unique to humans such as Alzheimer's disease and autism.
"While mapping the human genome has taught us a great deal about human biology, the emerging field of epigenomics may help us identify previously overlooked or discarded sequences that are key to understanding disease," said Dr. Akbarian. "We identified hundreds of loci that represent untapped areas of study that may have therapeutic potential."
Dr. Akbarian and his research team isolated small snippets of chromatin fibers from the prefrontal cortex. Next, they analyzed these snippets to determine what genetic signals they were expressing. Many of the sequences with human-specific epigenetic characteristics were, until recently, considered to be "junk DNA" with no particular function.