Despite vast differences in the genetic code across individuals and ethnicities, the human brain shows a “consistent molecular architecture,” say researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health. The finding is from a pair of studies that have created databases revealing when and where genes turn on and off in multiple brain regions through development.
“Our study shows how 650,000 common genetic variations that make each of us a unique person may influence the ebb and flow of 24,000 genes in the most distinctly human part of our brain as we grow and age,” explained Joel Kleinman, M.D., Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Clinical Brain Disorders Branch.
Both studies measured messenger RNAs or transcripts. These intermediate products carry the message from DNA, the genetic blueprint, to create proteins and differentiated brain tissue. Each gene can make several transcripts, which are expressed in patterns influenced by a subset of the approximately 1.5 million DNA variations unique to each of us. This unique set of transcripts is called our transcriptome – a molecular signature that is unique to every individual. The transcriptome is a measure of the diverse functional potential that exists in the brain.
Both studies found that rapid gene expression during fetal development abruptly switches to much slower rates after birth that gradually decline and eventually level off in middle age. These rates surge again as the brain ages in the last decades, mirroring rates seen in childhood and adolescence, according to one of the studies. The databases hold secrets to how the brain’s ever-changing messenger chemical systems, cells and development processes are related to gene expression patterns through development.
Individual genetic variations are profoundly linked to expression patterns. The most similarity across individuals is detected early in development and again as we approach the end of life.
Different types of related genes are expressed during prenatal development, infancy, and childhood, so that each of these stages shows a relatively distinct transcriptional identity. Three-fourths of genes reverse their direction of expression after birth, with most switching from on to off.
Expression of genes involved in cell division declines prenatally and in infancy, while expression of genes important for making synapses, or connections between brain cells, increases. In contrast, genes required for neuronal projections decline after birth – likely as unused connections are pruned.
By the time we reach our 50s, overall gene expression begins to increase, mirroring the sharp reversal of fetal expression changes that occur in infancy.
Among 29 modules of co-expressed genes identified, each had distinct expression patterns and represented different biological processes. Genetic variation in some of the most well-connected genes in these modules, called hub genes, has previously been linked to mental disorders, including schizophrenia and depression.
Sex differences in the risk for certain mental disorders may be traceable to transcriptional mechanisms. More than three-fourths of 159 genes expressed differentially between the sexes were male-biased, most prenatally. Some genes found to have such sex-biased expression had previously been associated with disorders that affect males more than females, such as schizophrenia, Williams syndrome, and autism
Key finding: components of brains basically the same, it is the expression that sets us apart; expression variation starts prenatal and come back again later in age; prenatal changes mostly show as cell division while after birth as synapses or connecting genes, which supports my theory of each person as an open ecosystem; Timing and location are far more influential in regulating gene expression than gender, ethnicity or individual variation. This support my theory that it is accumulated choices from early life that matter more than cross culture variation (for example, immigrants mostly kept their lifestyles after moving to new country); the notion of hub genes or most-connected genes in the modules, is interesting.