Nature and nurture work together to shape the brain
November 16, 2011
At the Neuroscience 2011 conference, scientists at The Rockefeller University, The Scripps Research Institute, and the University of Pennsylvania presented new research demonstrating the impact that life experiences can have on genes and behavior. The studies examine how such environmental information can be transmitted from one generation to the next — a phenomenon known as epigenetics. This new knowledge could ultimately improve understanding of brain plasticity, the cognitive benefits of motherhood, and how a parent‘s exposure to drugs, alcohol, and stress can alter brain development and behavior in their offspring.
The new findings show that:
- Brain cell activation changes a protein involved in turning genes on and off, suggesting the protein may play a role in brain plasticity.
- Prenatal exposure to amphetamines and alcohol produces abnormal numbers of chromosomes in fetal mouse brains. The findings suggest these abnormal counts may contribute to the developmental defects seen in children exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero.
- Cocaine-induced changes in the brain may be inheritable. Sons of male rats exposed to cocaine are resistant to the rewarding effects of the drug.
- Motherhood protects female mice against some of the negative effects of stress.
- Mice conceived through breeding — but not those conceived through reproductive technologies — show anxiety-like and depressive-like behaviors similar to their fathers. The findings call into question how these behaviors are transmitted across generations.