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UB research suggests good genes work best with healthy choices

Researchers at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions have discovered how a gene in the brain’s dopamine system can play an important role in prolonging lifespan – though the gene must be coupled with a healthy environment that includes exercise.

The study, led by Panayotis “Peter” K. Thanos, an institute senior research scientist, appears in the latest online version of Oncotarget Aging, a top-ranked aging journal.

Thanos joined the institute in the the fall; his research focuses on the neurobiology of addiction, with a special focus on food addictions. He and his team studied the genes in dopamine to assess their impact on lifespan and behavior in mice. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and regulate physical mobility and emotional response.

Researchers found the dopamine D2 receptor gene (D2R) significantly influences lifespan, body weight and locomotor activity, but only when combined with an enriched environment that included social interaction, sensory and cognitive stimulation and, most critically, exercise.

“The incorporation of exercise is an important component of an enriched environment and its benefits have been shown to be a powerful mediator of brain function and behavior,” Thanos said.

Mice in the enriched environment lived 16 to 22 percent longer than those in a deprived environment, depending on the level of D2R expression.

“These results provide the first evidence of D2R gene-environment interaction playing an important role in longevity and aging,” Thanos said. “The dichotomy over genes versus environment has provided a rigorous and long debate in deciphering individual differences in longevity. In truth, there exists a complex interaction between the two which contribute to the differences.”

Research exploring this genetic-environmental interaction should lead to a better understanding and prediction of the potential benefits of specific environments, such as those including exercise, on longevity and health during aging.