UMN research finds genetic link to brain aging

Researchers hope they can use these findings to make better anti-aging drugs in the future.

by Wesley Hortenbach

University of Minnesota researchers hope the recent discovery of a gene that prevents aging in the brain could help them develop better anti-aging drugs in the future. 

The researchers identified a certain allele — an alternate form of a gene — that preserves brain cells in what they are calling a “breakthrough” finding, according to a report published in the EBioMedicine journal last month.

The study compared the amount of grey matter in the brains of two cognitively healthy groups of women — those with the gene allele and those without it — affiliated with the Minnesota Veterans Affairs Medical Center. 

“In the group that did not have the allele, they saw what you would expect in terms of brain aging,” said Lisa James, a study author and University professor of Women’s Healthy Aging in the Department of Neuroscience. “[In] the people that did have this allele, there was no atrophy.”

Researchers wanted to study participants with good cognitive health so they could generalize their findings to the wider population, said Lisa James, a researcher at the University’s Brain Sciences Center.

Past research has shown genes play a significant role in people’s wellbeing. For example, some heavy smokers have been found to live long lives or some people eat a lot and do not gain weight because of their genes, but researchers are unsure which specific genes are the cause, said Apostolos Georgopoulos, a study author and director of the Brain Sciences Center.

After a study last year on Gulf War veterans showed a certain allele may prevent brain atrophy, University researchers wanted to extend the research to the general population. 

“This is where the broader implication comes in. [The] Centers for Disease Control is focused on our work as a breakthrough on what the nonveteran population experiences,” said Brian Engdahl, a study author and professor in the Department of Neuroscience. “It’s a window to the larger picture.”

In the future, researchers hope this discovery will serve as a platform for a drug that could prevent brain aging. Current research in the Brain Sciences Center is replicating the study with more participants, including both men and women.

“We are not meaning to say genetics is destiny and that you are doomed if you have the wrong genotype. There are things you can do as a person to overcome genetics,” Engdahl said.

James hopes the findings will lead the public to view brain aging as a disease, rather than an inevitable process they must accept.

Aging is not only biologically harmful, but also mentally challenging due to the stresses of getting old, said Kaz Nelson, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University.

”You get really used to your brain,” Nelson said. “To walk into a room and not know why you walked into it is extremely frustrating.”

While there are therapies and medications available to help people cope with concerns related to brain aging, especially in regards to maintaining individuals’ identities, future developments based on this research could prevent it altogether.

“If something is wrong with your foot, you don’t take it personally,” Nelson said. “But when your brain deteriorates, a person’s sense of identity is impacted.”