Just when you thought that brushing your teeth with your ‘other’ hand, walking backwards for 26 steps and alternating crossword and sudoku puzzles daily would resolve your long term memory concerns, science is uncovering new facts about how your genes influence who you are and – among many other things – how well you remember. But not in the ways you might think.
Not that long ago it was commonly thought that the brain had just so many neurons – or brain cells – at birth and that you spent the rest of your life using some and losing others. It was also thought that what you learned early in life was, more or less, what you were limited to. After all, little kids can learn Chinese, Greek or Portugese, for example, with ease and without ‘foreign’ accents while adults have great difficulty learning almost any new languages —usually accompanied by noticeable accents.
And finally, a fuller understanding of the human genome teaches that while genes are the master blueprint controlling the cell’s processes, these are greatly influenced by physical molecular factors on the genes themselves. These factors are influenced by things you do (e.g., physical activity), ingest (e.g., nutritional supplement) or even in some cases experience (e.g., high levels of stress). The way that epigenetics works is by promoting or inhibiting the expression of a given gene or set of genes.
Here’s an example. There are approximately 200 different cell types in the human body. While they all begin with exactly the same genetic code coming from the initial fertilized egg, they end up quite differently. What makes them differentiate into their various functions? What makes one cell become a brain cell and another one – starting off just like it- become a liver cell… or a muscle cell? And what keeps them from changing into some other cell type such as a bone cell at random? The answer is found in the science of epigenetics.
So, while genes are central to our being, the presence of any given genes alone do not dictate our destiny. It is now understood that other factors are responsible for regulating when and how genes are expressed (or turned on) or repressed (or turned off). After all, a repressed gene is turned off and therefore not expressed, acting as if its not there.
The science of how your genes are regulated – turned on and off, their volume level raised or lowered… but without changing the DNA itself – is known as epigentics.
Epigeneticists study changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code itself but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the epigenome — the cellular material that sits on top of – and outside of – the genome technically known as ‘marks’. These epigenetic “marks” direct your genes to switch on or off, to express vigorously or barely at all.
It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors including – but not limited to – diet, stress, prenatal nutrition, emotions and many other factors can make an imprint on genes… an imprint that is passed from one generation to the next.
Epigenetics dramatically changes the way we think of healthy lifestyle and memory fitness over the lifespan – for our own benefit and that of our offspring!
Of course, the new science of the brain – neuroplasticity – explains that the brain works through networks of neuronal connections – hundreds of billions of them…. changing with virtually every experience. These networks are central to what you know and remember. When strong emotions are associated with a conscious experience, it builds a network of neurons that lasts a long time and can be more easily retrieved or remembered.
There is much to know and understand about our genetic heritage and how you influence it by your own actions and experiences. But the more you know the better you will be able to influence your memory fitness. And that is what we are working hard to help you with here at MemoryZine.