Professor Anthony Hannan is head of the Neural Plasticity Laboratory, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. He is also currently an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow, and has received awards for his research, including the British Council Eureka Prize (fitting) and the Federation of European Biochemical Societies Anniversary Prize.
In his talk, Professor Hannan will let us in on why doing neuroscience in the 21st century is like physics was at the start of the 20th century. There is a revolution going on right now in biology and medicine, an extraordinary new area of brain science called ‘epigenetics’.
It turns out that, although what happens to us in our lifetime cannot change the basic code of our DNA, what we learn, what we eat, how we feel or respond in early childhood can leave chemical marks or ‘tags’ on our DNA, which in turn changes how our genes are expressed. The really astonishing thing is that these ‘epigenetic’ changes can be inherited. They are expressed not only in our own bodies, but in our children as well.
There is also evidence that these tags do not have to be permanent. In fact some of it can be compensated for, and even erased, during a lifetime.
Understanding the role of epigenetics in brain development and function may open the door to knowing how to influence the epigenome to effectively treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s, mental illness and addiction.