Activities in youth impact brain as it ages

Because of the Alzheimer’s and dementia in my family in previous generations, the subject of any activity that might help (or have helped) my aging brain is high on my list of priorities.

Human DNA – and this also applies to mice – contains thousands of genes. However, it is not only the genetic blueprint that is decisive for the function of a cell and whether it is healthy or not, but above all which genes can be switched on or off. Aging, living conditions and behavior are known to influence this ability to activate genes. The phenomenon, referred to as “epigenetics”, was the focus of the current study. For this, researchers including Dr. Sara Zocher and Prof. Gerd Kempermann examined mice that had grown up in different environments: One group of animals experienced, from a young age, an “enriched” environment with toys and tunnel tubes. The rodents of a second group did not have such occupational opportunities.

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Attachments to the DNA

When the scientists examined the genome, they found that in those mice that grew up in the stimulating environment, there was, with age, only a relatively small change in certain chemical tags of the DNA. In mice from the low-stimulus environment, these changes were much more pronounced – in comparison between young and older animals. “We registered so-called methyl groups, which stick to the DNA,” explains Gerd Kempermann, speaker for the DZNE’s Dresden site, DZNE research group leader and also a scientist at the CRTD. “These chemical attachments do not alter the genetic information per se. Rather, they influence whether individual genes can be activated or not.”

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