Could our blood show signs of Alzheimer’s before the disease is properly diagnosed? One new study aimed to find out whether epigenetic changes, or modifications in gene expression, could be identified in a person’s blood to help detect Alzheimer’s.
And in yet another sign that lifestyle can impact the potential development of Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers in Finland working with 23 sets of twins found significant differences in blood markers between siblings who have Alzheimer’s and those without the disease.
Epigenetic Marks and Alzheimer’s
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression, and how these changes can impact a person’s health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these changes in gene expression can be influenced by lifestyle or environmental factors—like diet or exposure to pollution—and can help spell out the development of genetic disorders and diseases.
The research team from the University of Turku in Finland focused on sets of twins—one twin who had Alzheimer’s, and another one who didn’t—in order to compare the genetics.
They found several epigenetic markers that are sensitive to environmental and lifestyle changes in multiple gene regions. Those markers appeared stronger in the brain samples of siblings with Alzheimer’s, particularly among those who smoked. The research was published recently in Clinical Epigenetics.
In a news release, lead researcher Rikka Lund cautioned that more research was necessary to see if the genetic markers could be useful in diagnosing Alzheimer’s. “More research is also needed to clarify the potential impact of the marks on disease mechanisms and to identify the brain regions and cell types affected,” Lund said.
Nature Vs. Nurture
Epigenetics is an exploding area of research. It essentially involves the age-old question of nature vs. nurture: whether the genes we are born with determine the rest of our life, or if exposure to a variety of environmental factors can have an even greater effect on our future health.
A journal article titled Epigenetics for Dummies, published in BMJ Journals, describes the complex genetics processes this way: “You may be born with a capacity to be tall and confident, but if you are undernourished and abused as a child, you are more likely to turn into a stunted and fearful adult instead.”
Past research has explored how lifestyle changes may have more of a positive impact on brain health than any current drugs or treatments. The evidence behind exercise improving brain health, for example, is strong. Researchers have also found that fighting the isolation of loneliness through socializing could protect you against cognitive decline, and even meditation has shown to have benefits for your brain.
While these lifestyle changes can help keep your brain healthy, there are still no real cures or treatments for dementia or Alzheimer’s once the disease has progressed. However, experts urge patients to remain devoted to a healthy lifestyle, as tweaking your environmental factors may indeed play a role.
In a Being Patient interview, Rudy Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard University and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that lifestyle most definitely impacts genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s and said it is “obligatory to do everything you can to stave off the disease.”