This post has something for both the casual reader and the scientists among you. Today I will start with the science.
Stimulating production of Bcl-2
Epigenetics are chemical markers that can appear on your DNA as the result of some environmental exposure, like diet or stress. Methylation is a type of epigenetic change in which methyl groups are added to DNA and switch on or off the underlying gene. This can have severe consequences depending on which gene is affected.
It seems that if one identical twin has autism, there is a 70% chance that the other twin will be autistic. In 30% of the cases the twin is neurotypical. Researchers have very cleverly started to analyse pairs of twins from this 30% group and look for epigenetic marks. This would highlight genetic causes of autism.
Apoptosis is a tricky word to spell, for somebody like me, but is actually something quite simple; it is programmed cell death. Apoptosis happens in all of us, all day long. If it gets out of control, it becomes bad and something called atrophy will occur. Too little apoptosis can result in irregular cell growth and cancer.
Using the epigenetics approach, in 2010 a study was published that identified two “candidate” genes linked to autism. They were BCL-2 and RORA.
According to that study, BCL-2 is an anti-apoptotic protein located in the outer mitochondrial membrane that is important for cell survival under a variety of stressful conditions. In other words BCL-2 inhibits cell death.
According to another source, BCL-2 is “one of the foremost anti-apoptotic molecules”.
A very recent study has identified more such genes, using the same approach.
If you are really interested in the genetics of autism, there is actually a database of all the indicated genes, maintained by the Simons Foundation.
BCL-2 and autism
Going back to 2001, researchers had already noted that the autistic brain was deficient in BCL-2 and they suggested that:-
“These results indicate for the first time that autistic cerebellum may be vulnerable to pro-apoptotic stimuli and to neuronal atrophy as a consequence of decreased BCL-2 levels.”
The study is called :- Reduction in anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2 in autistic cerebellum
As we have already learned, in the autistic brain the important Purkinje Cells are reduced in number by half due to atrophy. If BCL-2 can indeed reduce this excessive apoptosis, it should be a friend indeed.
Fortunately the clever people working with Professor Wood, at the University of Minnesota, have been studying cholesterol regulation in the brain for some time. Here is what they have been up to:-
“The lab has recently made the novel discovery that statins both in vivo and in vitro stimulate gene expression and protein levels of one of the foremost anti-apoptotic molecules, Bcl-2. Currently, studies are focused on mechanisms of statin-induction of Bcl-2”
Or in plainer English, statin drugs increase your level of BCL-2 and so reduce cell death.
If you want to read more here is an open access paper:- Simvastatin Stimulates Production of the Antiapoptotic Protein Bcl-2 via Endothelin-1 and NFATc3 in SH-SY5Y Cells
The Singing Statin
Now we have finished with the pure science and we move back to the practical world of applied science.
Monty, aged 9, has been taking atorvastatin for a few weeks. After day one, he developed the urge to play the piano outside of lesson time. Every day since, he has played more and more. Now his piano teacher says she thinks he has absolute pitch. It turns out that this is far more common in the autistic population and there is a great deal of research that has been done on this and music/autism in general. Here is a short article on the subject.
Now in an earlier post we established the importance of the stress hormone cortisol and also the interesting finding that you can reduce it by singing. Then I got people asking about, “what about just listening to music” or “what about playing an instrument”. I did not do the research, but I think nothing works like a good sing.
So yesterday I was delighted to hear that Monty has started to sing spontaneously in his room. He put on his Mozart CD and started to sing, with his own lyrics and not just in English, but also in his second language.
I have to thank Mr Pfizer and in fact Mr Bruce Roth for bringing us Atorvastatin (called Lipitor or Sortis, depending on where you live). Mr Roth invented it in 1985.
Perhaps BCL-2 could be better named the Singing Gene?