UVA Brain ‘Mosaic’ Named a Top Discovery of 2013
Groundbreaking brain research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine is part of a prestigious top 10 list from the National Institute of Mental Health.
The research shows that brain cells are not only different from cells in the rest of the body, but they are also different from one another. It is an important step toward understanding and finding the cure for diseases like depression and autism.
The UVA School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics found that 41 percent of the neurons they examined in the brain had at least one significant variation from the other neurons in the brain. For example, some of the genes in your brain may just come from one parent - and some from the other.
That may explain why twins may have different emotional issues. The research also explains how one twin may have different ways of thinking from another, even if they look identical.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Jan. 8, 2014 -- For the second year in a row, groundbreaking research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics has made the list of the year's top 10 discoveries and breakthroughs, as compiled by the director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Under the heading "Brain Exceptionalism," NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, MD, highlights the discovery of an unexpected variation in the genetic makeup of nerve cells in the brain. "For me, 2013 will be the year when we began to realize how much the brain differs from other organs," Insel writes, noting that the recent findings "really made the case for the human brain as not only the most mysterious but the most exceptional of organs."
The discovery of the genetic "mosaic" in the brain's neurons was the result of work at UVA by Mike McConnell, PhD, and Ira Hall, PhD, in collaboration with Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute and a team of researchers. The work represented an important new application of single-cell sequencing, allowing scientists to look at the genetic makeup of individual cells. (The journal Nature Methods has named single-cell sequencing the "Method of the Year" in recognition of its transformative potential for genetic research. That article, out now, profiles the UVA mosaic research and other important applications.)
About the Neuron Mosaic
The UVA researchers found that up to 41 percent of the neurons they examined displayed at least one significant variation in DNA – a percentage far greater than anticipated. That variation could have enormous impact, potentially helping to explain schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism and other such conditions thought to be genetically linked but not yet tied to a single gene.
"The lesson," Insel concludes, "is that we cannot use peripheral cells to know what is happening in the brain."