At the convergence of biotechnology and nanotechnology, a new project to map the active human brain may eventually lead to an understanding of human perception and consciousness, as well as therapies for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and autism.
Long stretches of DNA once considered inert “dark matter” of the genome — the over 98% of DNA that doesn’t code for proteins — appear to be uniquely active in a part of the brain known to control the body’s 24-hour cycle, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health. The findings appear in the August 14th edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .
The emerging field of epigenetics has added a new dimension to the “nature versus nurture” debate, by which researchers have historically attempted to determine whether a characteristic was influenced by genes or environment. Increasingly, it appears that environmental influences can affect gene expression, meaning that “nature” and “nurture” are inextricable from one another to an even greater extent than previously understood.
While prevention of neural tube defect — birth defects of the brain and spinal cord — is perhaps the most widely known reason for taking folic acid before and during pregnancy, recent research brings additional benefits of prenatal folic acid supplementation to light. A study published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that use of folic acid supplements in early pregnancy significantly reduces the risk of severe language delay in children at 3 years of age .
Small genetic differences between individuals help explain why some people have a higher risk than others for developing illnesses such as diabetes or cancer. Recently in the journal Nature, the 1000 Genomes Project, an international public-private consortium, published the most comprehensive map of these genetic differences, called variations, estimated to contain approximately 95 percent of the genetic variation of any person on Earth.