A recent study finds that neurons can spontaneously change the sequence of a gene called APP, which is involved with Alzheimer’s disease.
In most cases, the DNA that you’re born with stays the same throughout your entire life. However, according to a paper recently published in Nature, neurons can randomly change their own DNA sequence, which may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study was led by Dr. Jerold Chun’s research group at the University of California San Diego and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Research Institute. Dr. Chun’s lab and others have previously shown that adult neurons can alter their own DNA sequence. As a result, different neurons inside your brain can have their own unique genomes, a phenomenon known as genomic mosaicism. This is distinct from epigenetic modifications, which can turn genes on or off but do not change the actual genetic sequence.
Genomic mosaicism, which occurs by a seemingly random process, can range in size from a single nucleotide to entire chromosomes. These changes tend to accumulate as we age, which led many scientists to wonder if they could be related to neurodegenerative diseases.
Our Mosaic Brains and Alzheimer’s Disease
In their recent Nature paper, Dr. Chun’s group investigated a single gene called Amyloid Precursor Protein, or APP for short. APP is the precursor to amyloid-beta, a toxic sticky protein that builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers were curious whether different forms of the APP gene could exist throughout the brain.
Using postmortem brain samples from five people with sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, as well as five age-matched controls, they extracted DNA from individual neurons and sequenced the APP gene. They found that more than 6,000 variants of APP existed across different neurons.
Interestingly, the Alzheimer’s brains had far greater diversity of genetic variants than the healthy brains. This suggests that these unusual APP variants could be related to the development of Alzheimer’s. When they took three of these variants and expressed them in a cell culture, two of them resulted in cell death. In addition, the Alzheimer’s brains had several APP variants that have been linked to familial Alzheimer’s disease (a rare, genetic form of early-onset Alzheimer’s), while none of the healthy brains contained these variants.
Next, the researchers wanted to understand how all these different APP variants might arise in neurons. They used a hamster cell culture that was made to express the human APP gene. When they used chemicals to induce DNA double-stranded breaks, the cells began producing unique APP variants, just like human neurons. The researchers also showed that this process relies on reverse transcription, which converts an RNA sequence to DNA.
Impacts for Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and Memory
This discovery is a major shift for Alzheimer’s researchers. Previous anti-APP drug candidates have generally only targeted one form of the gene, and this work shows that a huge array of genetic variants can exist in our brains. We will certainly need to reconsider our strategy for Alzheimer’s therapies moving forward.
In addition, the link between genomic mosaicism and reverse transcription has some intriguing implications for HIV. Previously studies have shown that people with HIV who are over age 65 have a lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease than the general population. One explanation could be the anti-retroviral drugs that they take. These drugs prevent the HIV multiplying by inhibiting reverse transcription, a process that the virus requires for replication. An unintended consequence of this could be that these people do not develop the APP variants that are linked to Alzheimer’s. If this turns out to be the case, anti-retroviral drugs could possibly be used as a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s.
So far, none of this has addressed the reason why neurons are so prone to developing different APP variants. In the Nature study, another Alzheimer’s-related gene called PSEN1 did not have such a wide variety, suggesting that the mechanism is specific to APP. In addition, non-neuronal cells did not develop all these APP variants. A possible explanation could be that this process is important for memory formation. The authors suggest that storing so many unique version of APP could be a mechanism for memory storage and recall at the molecular level. This idea remains speculative, but it does have a kind of poetic irony to it: the gene responsible for forming memories could also destroy those memories as we age.