SCIENCE
01/23/2015 08:10 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2015

Cracking The Brain's Genetic Code

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An international team of over 300 scientists are taking on an ambitious project to identify eight common genetic mutations that appear to age the brain by three years on average. The team, known as Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta Analysis (ENIGMA) Network, hopes to pave the way for new treatments for Alzheimer's, autism and other neurological disorders.

Led by researchers at the University of Southern California, neuroscientists from more than 190 scientific institutions are bringing together a wealth of data, including brain scans and genetic data from 33 countries around the globe to identify and target genes that either enhance or deteriorate key brain regions.

"The ENIGMA Center's work uses vast datasets as engines of biomedical discovery; it shows how each individual's genetic blueprint shapes the human brain," Dr. Philip Bourne, associate director for data science at the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.

Using MRI data from more than 30,000 people, the researchers screened millions of genome variations to determine which ones affected important brain areas implicated in common neurological disorders.

They discovered eight genes that are capable of either eroding or strengthening brain tissue, which may alter the "brain reserve" by two to three percent. In this respect, the genes seem to exert an effect on how resilient our brains are to disease.

"We have some preliminary data that shows the genes driving brain size may affect disease risk," Dr. Paul Thompson, ENIGMA's principal investigator, said in an email to the Huffington Post. "Some affect the memory systems of the brain that decline in Alzheimer's disease. Other genes affect deep brain nuclei that degenerate in Parkinson's and Huntington's disease. If you think of the brain as a mental bank account, we need to know what depletes it and tops it up."

The findings could help to devise future treatments for neurological disorders using pharmacogenomics, which uses an individual's genetic makeup to determine treatment response and created more tailored interventions.

"If an existing treatment were more effective for certain people, or only in certain people, ENIGMA would help to personalize medicine," Thompson explains. "The pain killer codeine, for example, is thought to be less effective in people with certain genetic codes. Imagine if that was true for psychiatric medications too -- it may be, and ENIGMA may offer one way to find out."

The project, which is the largest of its kind, was made possible through a $23 million grant from the National Institutes of Health as part of its Big Data Initiative to improve biomedical data.

It's a powerful testament to the kind of impact that global data collection and scientific collaboration can have.

"I love this kind of work -- it pays off financially, as people share resources and skills, and it gives us a power we never had in neuroscience," said Thompson. "It is not just data. It's also people in 33 countries working together to crack the brain's genetic code. Having 300 of the world's greatest minds attack the same problem reminds us of the allied code-breaking effort in World War II."

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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