Oxytocin may be able to support memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease. This is the conclusion of a study led by Maastricht University in which oxytocin was administered to mice with Alzheimer’s-related problems. The research is based on epigenetics, the external effects that turn parts of our DNA on or off during our lifetime.
Epigenetic processes are responsible for how we respond to our environment. If you have a conversation with someone, for example, it has small effects on the DNA in your brain cells. These processes are also involved in memory, and if they go wrong, it can lead to memory loss. This is also thought to contribute to memory problems in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Literally, epigenetics means ’on top of’ or ’in addition to’ genetics. While our DNA sequence remains the same throughout our lives, epigenetic changes allow us to adapt to our circumstances. ’Take the difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly,’ explains Daniel van den Hove, Professor in Neuroepigenetics at Maastricht University and coordinator of the research. ’There are no genetic differences, but parts of the DNA that are important for the development of wings, for example, are temporarily switched off in a caterpillar. In the butterfly stage, these parts are switched on again.’ Epigenetic processes are therefore actually like instructions to your body to turn certain functions on or off.
The oxytocin gene
When comparing the epigenetic code of healthy individuals and that of individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s, the researchers found epigenetic differences in the OXT gene, which is responsible for the production of oxytocin - better known as the ’love hormone’. A second study showed that epigenetic changes in the OXT gene in cognitively healthy elderly people can also be a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. It is thought that epigenetic changes to the OXT gene reduce the production of oxytocin in Alzheimer’s disease.
When researchers administered oxytocin to mice with Alzheimer’s-related problems, their memory recovered within a few weeks. Although we should not assume that oxytocin can cure people of Alzheimer’s, in future it may offer a way to support their memory.
On 23 September, Daniel van den Hove gave his inaugural lecture on epigenetics and Alzheimer’s disease at Maastricht University. Part of the research has ben published in the journal of clinical epigenetics for a video presentation by promovendus Philippos Koulousakis (UM) on the oxytocin for dementia.