Scots scientists examine why some brains age better than others

Edinburgh scientists have decoded the genetic make-up of more than one thousand people as part of a long-term study to examine why some people's brains age better than others.

The study examined why some people's brains age better than others. Picture: Contributed

The gene study involved researchers at the University of Edinburgh sequencing the DNA of 1,300 people as part of a project which has tracked the same individuals for decades.

The development will enable in-depth analysis of the participants’ genetic make-up, and may help identify the genetic basis of why some people’s brains age better than others from the same age range.

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The Lothian Birth Cohorts, comprise two groups of people born in 1921 and 1936, who were tested on their mental abilities at age 11, originally as a way of informing education policies.

Prof Ian Deary University of Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed

Over the past 15 years, members of the cohort have been regularly tested by researchers at the university’s centre for cognitive ageing and cognitive epidemiology (CCACE).

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Their follow-up mental examinations, blood tests and brain scans have yielded valuable information on mental and physical ageing.

By linking this new genetic information with the cognitive testing carried out over the past 15 years, researchers hope to shed new light on the factors underlying healthy ageing.

Prof Ian Deary University of Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed

When participants were first recruited to the Lothian Birth Cohorts, each person’s genome would have cost US$100 million to sequence. Today, the cost is around US$1000 (about £700).

The genetic sequencing was conducted at Edinburgh Genomics at the university, one of the largest sequencing facilities in the UK. It was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Professor Ian Deary, director of CCACE, said “This genetic data will prove invaluable for understanding why some people’s brains and thinking skills age better than others.

“The flip side of having such comprehensive genetic data is that we will also understand better how the environment and lifestyle choices can contribute to healthy ageing.”

Joel Fearnley, Edinburgh Genomics chief operating officer, said: “This pioneering work has been made possible by our highly skilled team and the Scottish Genomes Partnership’s investment in equipment that enables rapid sequencing and delivery of high quality data at a viable cost.”

Professor David Hume, director of the university’s Roslin Institute, which houses the gene sequencing facility, said: “This achievement builds upon many years of BBSRC support for genomic research in Roslin, through the ARK Genomics National Capacity Grant. Aside from the opportunities to gain new insights in human genetics, the work opens the door to similar large-scale initiatives in other species.

Professor Tim Aitman, co-chair of the Scottish Genome Partnership and director of the university’s centre for genomic and experimental medicine, said: “We are delighted with the quality and volume of data coming out of the Edinburgh Genomics facility.

This tremendous rate of genetic sequencing is a testament to an incredible team effort which will accelerate our work towards radically improving disease diagnosis and management of patients in the Scottish NHS.”

The Lothian Cohorts are funded by Age UK and the Medical Research Council.