Epigenetics may play an important role in addiction and depression. Or, we hope, in fighting them:
As I opened my copy of Science at home one night, an unfamiliar word in the title of a new study caught my eye: dopaminylation. The term refers to the brain chemical dopamine’s ability, in addition to transmitting signals across synapses, to enter a cell’s nucleus and control specific genes. As I read the paper, I realized that it completely upends our understanding of genetics and drug addiction. The intense craving for addictive drugs like alcohol and cocaine may be caused by dopamine controlling genes that alter the brain circuitry underlying addiction. Intriguingly, the results also suggest an answer to why drugs that treat major depression must typically be taken for weeks before they’re effective. I was shocked by the dramatic discovery, but to really understand it, I first had to unlearn some things.
“Half of what you learned in college is wrong,” my biology professor, David Lange, once said. “Problem is, we don’t know which half.” How right he was. I was taught to scoff at Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and his theory that traits acquired through life experience could be passed on to the next generation. The silly traditional example is the mama giraffe stretching her neck to reach food high in trees, resulting in baby giraffes with extra-long necks. Then biologists discovered we really can inherit traits our parents acquired in life, without any change to the DNA sequence of our genes. It’s all thanks to a process called epigenetics — a form of gene expression that can be inherited but isn’t actually part of the genetic code. This is where it turns out that brain chemicals like dopamine play a role.R. Douglas Fields, “The Epigenetic Secrets Behind Dopamine, Drug Addiction and Depression” at Quanta
Notice the admission that Lamarck was scoffed at by people who should have suspected better. Well, as we said earlier, Lamarck, wake up, you’re wanted in the conference room!