Neurology Central

Could binge drinking have epigenetic consequences for offspring?

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At SfN’s recent Neuroscience 2016 congress (San Diego, CA, USA; 12–16 November 2016), we saw a wealth of new research exploring the role that epigenetics may play in numerous neurological disorders, as well as how epigenetic patterns can both be passed to, and impact, future generations. The Society for Neuroscience highlighted a number of abstracts in this area, including one from Annadorothea (Andie) Asimes and colleagues from Loyola University (IL, USA). Following the conference, we chatted to Andie in more detail about her work on binge alcohol consumption in adolescence and how the epigenetic consequences of this can lead to a higher predisposition for mental health disorders in offspring.

Please could you tell us a little about your background and your current research focuses?

I am a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at Loyola University Chicago. Before coming to Loyola I studied Neuroscience at Kenyon College (OH, USA) and earned a Bachelor’s degree in 2013. I am currently working and studying in the lab of Toni Pak (Loyola University) where we are trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind long-term and heritable changes to the brain following binge drinking in teens. My dissertation centers on the mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance following adolescent binge drinking and their functional consequences in offspring.

You recently presented your work at Neuroscience 2016 – please could you give us an overview of this research?

Underage drinkers in the USA account for over 20% of all alcohol consumption in the country, and more than 90% of this is consumed in binge patterns. An episode of binge drinking for men is around five drinks in one sitting and four drinks for women, and is defined as raising the blood alcohol level over 0.08% (legal driving limit) within 2 hours. These behaviors are not only dangerous to the brain development of the teenager exposed, but may also impact the brains of their children.

In our experiments, we use animal models to study the brains of offspring after parents are exposed to repeated binge alcohol consumption during adolescence (i.e., before conception). We recently found that exposure of the father to binge alcohol drinking led to just as many epigenetic changes in the offspring as exposure of the mother; however, these changes were different between the sexes.

Interestingly, when both parents were exposed to binge pattern drinking, there were more DNA methylation marks in the offspring, but they were different to those caused by either parent drinking alone.

“Our results show that a pattern of repeated binge alcohol consumption during adolescence can impact DNA programming in the brains of future generations.”

Our results show that a pattern of repeated binge alcohol consumption during adolescence can impact DNA programming in the brains of future generations. The genes encoded in DNA provide the instructions for cells to make proteins, which ultimately control physical and behavioral traits. Molecular changes to DNA, such as DNA methylation, represent a type of modification that typically turns genes ‘off’. Therefore, a consequence of gene silencing, through the process of DNA methylation, can be disruption to normal brain function and/or behaviors. Our data suggest that preconception alcohol abuse can impact the DNA of future offspring, even when those offspring are never exposed to alcohol themselves. These modifications to the offspring DNA could predispose them to develop mental health disorders later in life. Future research will be focused on how binge drinking during adolescence causes these effects in the offspring brain.

At this stage, do you anticipate that these findings could translate into humans? What could be the implications of this?

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