Environment and Gene Effects on Brain and Behavior

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An important way in which developmental Pb exposure may influence cognitive development and later life cognitive functioning is through epigenetic modifications and specifically, through modulating DNA methylation. Recent studies show that DNA methylation in the adult brain is highly dynamic and that the dynamic regulation of methylation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and hippocampus together play integral roles in memory formation, consolidation, and maintenance. Preliminary data show that DNA methylation in PFC and hippocampus are affected by developmental Pb exposure under resting conditions and during learning and memory, interfering with normal dynamic regulation of methylation and gene transcription necessary during learning and memory, leading to cognitive deficits. These effects of Pb appear to be expressed differently in males and females, are influenced by developmental timing of Pb exposure, and may be modified by individual genetic makeup through strain-specific epigenetic influences. Our long-term goal is to understand how developmental Pb exposure exerts long-term effects on the brain and behavior. The objective here, which is our next step in pursuit of these goals, is to better understand epigenetic effects of Pb on the brain and how these effects influence behavior. Our goal is to determine how low level Pb exposure affects dynamic methylation of specific genes in PFC and hippocampus during learning and memory and the extent to which these effects contribute to cognitive deficits in males and females and in different strains of rats. Our central hypothesis, is that Pb exposure will alter the dynamic regulation of DNA methylation of key learning/memory related genes in the PFC and hippocampus and that this epigenetic influence of Pb will vary by sex and strain. The objectives of this research will be accomplished by pursuing the following aims: 1) Determine effects of low level Pb exposure on the dynamic modulation of DNA methylation during learning and memory and examine how these effects influence behavior and cognition-related gene expression in males and females in a strain identified by us to be highly susceptible to the effects of Pb (Long Evans) and a strain relatively resistant (Sprague Dawley). Our hypothesis is that there will be aberrant dynamic DNA methylation resulting in abnormal modulation of learning/memory-related genes with associated cognitive deficits and these effects will be modified by sex and strain; 2) Determine the extent to which pharmacological modulation of DNA methylation influences cognitive outcomes in Pb-exposed animals and modulates learning/memory-related gene expression. We postulate that aberrant DNA methylation can be pharmacologically manipulated, potentially re-setting Pb-induced changes and positively influencing cognitive outcome. The proposed studies extend from the current grant and will identify epigenetic mechanisms through which Pb exposure may influence behavior. Results are expected to have important positive impact because of the widespread danger from low level Pb exposure and the possibility of identifying potential interventions that may improve negative outcomes assumed to be permanent.
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