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May 17, 2010
The Memory Goes Because. . .the Acetyl Groups Go?
I've been meaning to write about this paper from a recent issue of Science. They've been studying the differences between young (3-month) mice and old (16-month) mice - their ability to learn, and to remember. Markers of neuronal plasticity and the like are pretty similar between the groups, although the older mice definitely show some impairments in spatial learning and recall. Looking down at the genetic level, for effects on chromatin handling, didn't seem to show much, either - the young and old mice have similar levels of histone deacetylase and histone acyltransferase enzymes.
But a look at the real levels of acetylated histones showed something different: the older mice seemed to be deficient in one particular type of acetylation, H4K12. That particular lysine residue was acetylated much more readily in the younger animals in response to a fearful event, but the older animals didn't upregulate the process. A broad-based search using microarrays showed that a wide range of genes were regulated by the young mice when learning to avoid a fear stimulus, but were not altered to nearly the same degree in the older ones. And as it turns out, the H4K12 acetylation looks to be one of the common factors in the regulation of these genes.
The authors went so far as to use Vorinostat (SAHA), a marketed histone deacetylase inhibitor, to test this hypothesis. Administering that to the older mice (directly into the brain; it doesn't really cross on its own) led to both H4K12 effects and to beneficial effects on learning.
This is a long way from being a therapy, but it's a very interesting lead towards one. The effects of messing around with histone acylation states could be profound (both in the sense of "profoundly good" as well as "profoundly bad"), so it's going to be quite a while before the dust settles enough for us to know what to do. But I'm encouraged to see things like this coming up. Given that I'm 48, we're going to have to keep moving right along in order to have something ready by the time I'm going to need it!
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