Fall 2018

A different kind of brain protection

University of Minnesota researchers explore how genes can protect the aging brain


As we age, our brains normally lose some cells. The loss varies considerably, even in cognitively healthy people, and genetic factors have been linked to a higher risk of age-related brain cell loss. But do genes also protect the aging brain?

Yes, say researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Minneapolis VA Health Care System. They report that one form, or allele, of a particular gene protects a person from age-related reductions in the volume of gray matter. 

The allele—called DRB1*13:02—is one of many in the Human Leukocyte Antigen, a large complex of genes that help our bodies defend against potentially harmful foreign matter.

Funded in part by philanthropy through Driven: The University of Minnesota Campaign, the study provides a basis for developing a treatment to mimic the function of the protective allele.

“Individuals who carry this allele derive significant protection from many conditions that affect the brain,” says study author Lisa James, Ph.D., who holds the Kunin Professorship in Women’s Healthy Brain Aging. “We [previously] found a similar protection against brain atrophy in Gulf War veterans who carried this allele.

“This gene is one of many factors, including diet and exercise,” she adds, “that help maintain brain function throughout the lifespan.”