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Rush to Study Epigenetics of Cognitive Decline

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Rush University Medical Center in Chicago plans to use $5.5 million in grant funding from The National Institutes of Health to study how epigenetic changes may contribute to cognitive decline in older people, Rush said Wednesday.

Rush will conduct epigenome-wide DNA methylation scans and histone acetylation scans on brain tissue from participants in longitudinal studies of aging and dementia, including the Rush Memory and Aging Project and the Religious Orders Study.

The epigenomics studies will examine brain tissue from more than 1,000 participants in an effort to discover more about the relation between epigenetic alterations, caused by environment, diet, stress, and other factors, and cognitive decline.

DNA methylation sites and histone modifications in the epigenome could point researchers toward potential therapies for cognitive decline, Rush said, because "a number of drugs are known to affect epigenetic modifications."

"We have found that while cognitive decline in old age often results from one or more of three common brain diseases, Alzheimer's disease, cerebrovascular disease and Lewy body disease, these conditions only account for about 20 percent of the variance of cognition in older persons," explained David Bennett, director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center and principal investigator for the research.

"Thus, factors other than neuropathology must make important contributions to cognitive function in old age," he said.

Epigenetic marks could be important contributing factors, because the brain may be using them as a way of linking experiential factors to long term memory storage, according to Rush.

"A memory trace involves protein production. It is hard to change genes, but it may be easier to manipulate the opening and closing of genes to impact memory," Bennett said.

Rush said that it also has received funding to conduct whole genome scans on participants in its studies, and the data from those scans should yield information about the interaction between genetic variation and epigenetic marks on cognition. Rush is conducting that program through a collaboration with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.

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