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Nutrition, the brain and cognitive decline: insights from epigenetics

Abstract

Nutrition affects the brain throughout life, with profound implications for cognitive decline and dementia. These effects are mediated by changes in expression of multiple genes, and responses to nutrition are in turn affected by individual genetic variability. An important layer of regulation is provided by the epigenome: nutrition is one of the many epigenetic regulators that modify gene expression without changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms are central to brain development, structure and function, and include DNA methylation, histone modifications and non-protein-coding RNAs. They enable cell-specific and age-related gene expression. Although epigenetic events can be highly stable, they can also be reversible, highlighting a critical role for nutrition in prevention and treatment of disease. Moreover, they suggest key mechanisms by which nutrition is involved in the pathogenesis of age-related cognitive decline: many nutrients, foods and diets have both immediate and long-term effects on the epigenome, including energy status, that is, energy intake, physical activity, energy metabolism and related changes in body composition, and micronutrients involved in DNA methylation, for example, folate, vitamins B6 and B12, choline, methionine. Optimal brain function results from highly complex interactions between numerous genetic and environmental factors, including food intake, physical activity, age and stress. Future studies linking nutrition with advances in neuroscience, genomics and epigenomics should provide novel approaches to the prevention of cognitive decline, and treatment of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

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Acknowledgements

This review is based on a lecture presented in the Healthy Ageing Research Centre (HARC), Medical University of Łódź, Poland at the European Union-sponsored conference on Nutrition and Diet for Age-Related Cognitive Decline and Dementia, Session 2: Evidence for the role of nutrition and diet in the pathogenesis of cognitive decline, 6–7 March 2014. I thank the organizers, especially Iwona Kłoszewska, Tomasz Sobów and Marek L Kowalski, for inviting me to speak at this conference. I also thank many colleagues for expert advice and valuable discussion, especially John Mathers, Human Nutrition Research Centre and Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University, and Wolf Reik FRS, Epigenetics Group, BBSRC Babraham Institute, Cambridge. The author is a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and thanks the computing and library staff of the University for expert advice.

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Dauncey, M. Nutrition, the brain and cognitive decline: insights from epigenetics. Eur J Clin Nutr 68, 1179–1185 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2014.173

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