Zhen Yan standing in her lab.

Zhen Yan, PhD, is senior author on a study that found it possible to reverse memory decline in animal models of Alzheimer’s by focusing on epigenetics.

New Approach to Alzheimer’s May Reverse Memory Loss

Published February 28, 2019

A new approach to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) that may eventually make it possible to reverse memory loss is outlined in newly published research led by Zhen Yan, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of physiology and biophysics.

“If many of the dysregulated genes in Alzheimer’s disease are normalized by targeting specific epigenetic enzymes, it will be possible to restore cognitive function and behavior.”
SUNY Distinguished Professor of physiology and biophysics

In the study published in the journal Brain, the researchers found that by focusing on gene changes caused by influences other than DNA sequences — called epigenetics — it was possible to reverse memory decline in animal models of AD.

“In this paper, we have not only identified the epigenetic factors that contribute to the memory loss, we also found ways to temporarily reverse them in an animal model of AD,” says Yan, senior author on the study.

Alzheimer’s Linked to Epigenetic Abnormality

The research was conducted on mouse models carrying gene mutations for familial AD — where more than one member of a family has the disease — and on post-mortem brain tissues from AD patients.

AD results from both genetic and environmental risk factors, such as aging, which combine to result in epigenetic changes, leading to gene expression changes, but little is known about how that occurs.

The epigenetic changes in AD happen primarily in the later stages, when patients are unable to retain recently learned information and exhibit the most dramatic cognitive decline, Yan says. A key reason for the cognitive decline is the loss of glutamate receptors, which are critical to learning and short-term memory.

“We found that in Alzheimer’s disease, many subunits of glutamate receptors in the frontal cortex are downregulated, disrupting the excitatory signals, which impairs working memory,” she says.

Glutamate Receptors Key Element for Cognition

The researchers found that the loss of glutamate receptors is the result of an epigenetic process known as repressive histone modification, which is elevated in AD. They saw this both in the animal models they studied and in post-mortem tissue of AD patients.

Yan explains that histone modifiers change the structure of chromatin, which controls how genetic material gains access to a cell’s transcriptional machinery.

“This AD-linked abnormal histone modification is what represses gene expression, diminishing glutamate receptors, which leads to loss of synaptic function and memory deficits,” she notes.

Understanding that process has revealed potential drug targets, Yan adds, since repressive histone modification is controlled or catalyzed by enzymes.

“Our study not only reveals the correlation between epigenetic changes and AD, we also found we can correct the cognitive dysfunction by targeting the epigenetic enzymes to restore glutamate receptors,” she says.

Future Studies Will Seek to Lengthen Recovery

The AD animals were injected three times with compounds designed to inhibit the enzyme that controls repressive histone modification.

“When we gave the AD animals this enzyme inhibitor, we saw the rescue of cognitive function confirmed through evaluations of recognition memory, spatial memory and working memory. We were quite surprised to see such dramatic cognitive improvement,” Yan says.

“At the same time, we saw the recovery of glutamate receptor expression and function in the frontal cortex.”

The improvements lasted for one week. Future studies will focus on developing compounds that penetrate the brain more effectively and are thus longer lasting.

Epigenetic Approach Provides Advantage

Brain disorders, such as AD, are often polygenetic diseases, Yan explains, where many genes are involved and each gene has a modest impact. An epigenetic approach is advantageous, she says, because epigenetic processes control many genes instead of just one.

“An epigenetic approach can correct a network of genes, which will collectively restore cells to their normal state and restore the complex brain function,” Yan says.

“We have provided evidence showing that abnormal epigenetic regulation of glutamate receptor expression and function did contribute to cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease,” she adds.

“If many of the dysregulated genes in AD are normalized by targeting specific epigenetic enzymes, it will be possible to restore cognitive function and behavior.”

National Institutes of Health Funded Study

The study was funded by a $2 million National Institutes of Health grant focused on novel treatment strategies for AD.

Other co-authors from Yan’s laboratory in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics are:

  • Yan Zheng, PhD, former visiting scholar
  • Aiyi Liu, former master’s student
  • Zi-Jun Wang, PhD, postdoctoral fellow
  • Qing Cao, PhD, postdoctoral fellow
  • Wei Wang, research scientist
  • Lin Lin, former master’s student
  • Kaijie Ma, research scientist
  • Freddy Zhang, research assistant
  • Jing Wei, PhD, former postdoctoral fellow
  • Emmanuel Matas, PhD, former postdoctoral fellow
  • Jia Cheng, PhD, former doctoral student

Other co-authors are:

  • Xiaomin Wang, MD, PhD, of the Beijing Institute for Brain Disorders, Capital Medical University
  • Guo-Jun Chen, MD, PhD, of Chongqing Medical University