Epigenetics is the study of how genes can be turned on or off without altering the structure itself of the DNA. A good analogy is to think of a musician playing a piano. The keys of the piano are like the structure of the DNA – they are fixed. However many different pieces of music can be played from the same 88 keys depending on the movement of the hands of the musician. The actual tunes played are the “epigenetic changes” governed by the hands placement of the musician. Epigenetics is a rapidly expanding and very exciting branch of medicine because it allows us to understand how nurture, or environment, affects the expression of our inherited genetic structure.
The most studied markers which tell the RNA transcribing enzymes when to start and stop are methyl groups. A methyl group is simply a carbon atom surrounded by three hydrogen ions. It is the same chemical group that is moved around in the bodies’ methylation cycle. Mutations of the methylation cycle are linked to many diseases including cancer, heart disease, depression, miscarriage, chronic fatigue and Alzheimer’s. They can be diagnosed and treated with nutrient supplements, and are discussed more fully in this blog post /2012/07/methylation-mutation-resources/
In the last decade a number of scientific studies have documented how early environmental experiences, such as abuse, neglect or emotional deprivation, can lead to measurable changes in the hippocampus which is the area of the brain that is essential for regulating the response to stress. The following article is an excellent and relatively easy to follow explanation epigenetics and psychological experiences or “How Grandma’s Experiences Leave Epigenetic Marks on your DNA“.
For those who might not make it through the whole article an especially interesting paragraph notes that much research is now being devoted to learning how to control our own epigenetic markers.