1,000 old skeletons to provide new knowledge about brain disorders

The University of Copenhagen and Lundbeck Foundation are establishing a new research centre to map the interaction between human DNA and diseases through the ages. The centre is the first of its kind in the world. It will focus on neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders, and the data will come from bones and teeth. The oldest material is 10,000 years old.

Where do brain disorders actually come from – both neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and ADHD? And why do these brain disorders get ‘stuck’ in our DNA when they, quite clearly, make life difficult and cause great suffering?

These are some of the questions to which a large, international research team, headed by Professor Eske Willerslev and Professor Thomas Werge, both from the University of Copenhagen, will now attempt to find answers.

To be able to do this, they need to build up a special DNA library, consisting of complete DNA mapping of 1,000 old skeletons – the entire individual, genetic fingerprints of 1,000 people long dead – and it will be the largest library of its kind ever created.

Geographically, the material covers Europe and western Asia and typically originates from archaeological collections. It spans a period of 10,000 years up to 1850 BC, going back as far as the Paleolithic Age.

“Over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve largely begun to understand the genetic basis for psychiatric and neurological disorders. So, it’s both interesting and relevant to try to decipher how the genetics of these diseases developed – and their origin. It’s interesting to be able to go back 10,000 years and see if there’s anything in our DNA today that has changed compared with the DNA of our ancestors,” says Thomas Werge.

International collaboration
Eske Willerslev points out that there is bound to be some uncertainty about what may be found by following the human genome back 10,000 years:

“But this period is unique in many ways. Over the past 10,000 years, mankind has experienced some of the greatest lifestyle changes in the history of our species. Our diet changed as we developed from hunter-gatherers into farmers; our settlement patterns changed; and there have been changes in pressure of infection from the pathogenic micro-organisms to which we are exposed due to altered living conditions. So, there’s every reason to believe that systematic analyses of DNA from this period will show significant trends, which will give us a better understanding of the brain disorders we’re struggling with today.”

Eske Willerslev and Thomas Werge will work with a team of leading researchers from other universities in Europe and the USA, including the University of Cambridge, UK, and UC Berkeley, USA, to analyse the brain disorders.

A new centre
Activities will be coordinated at a new research centre at the University of Copenhagen: The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for Disease Evolution. The centre will be established in collaboration between the University of Copenhagen and Lundbeck Foundation, which has recently granted funding of DKK 60 million for the purpose.

John Renner Hansen, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Copenhagen, is looking forward to the collaboration:

“Brain disorders affect a great many people all over the world every single day; both sufferers and their relatives. This Lundbeck Foundation grant and the establishment of the centre allow us to develop innovative and original research that will not only give us an understanding of the evolutionary history of selected neurological disorders but, in the long term, will teach us how to treat these disorders.”

A road to new therapies
The two professors who will be in charge of the entire project each have their own field of research:

Eske Willerslev is an expert in analysing archaeological DNA, head of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and professor at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Thomas Werge is an expert in the genetics underlying psychiatric disorders. In addition to his affiliation with the University of Copenhagen, he is head of the Institute of Biological Psychiatry, Mental Health Services, Capital Region of Denmark.

One of the aims of the project – the first of its kind worldwide – is to acquire new knowledge in terms of medical and biological understanding of the special factors underlying the development of brain disorders through the ages. The hope is that this will provide a new approach to the development of medicines and other treatments.

“Combining the skills of Eske Willerslev and Thomas Werge creates an extremely potent professional cocktail, which will provide us with a completely new way of understanding brain disorders,” says Thomas Sinkjær, Director of Research at Lundbeck Foundation.

“It’ll be extremely valuable if, by going back 10,000 years, we can acquire new information about when and under which environmental conditions a brain disorder may have been introduced into human DNA. This new centre may make this possible, and it’s one of the main reasons why Lundbeck Foundation – which has brain disorders as one of its focus areas – is funding this project, of which we have high expectations.”

Finally, the project will use the collected data about the genetics underlying brain disorders for a major information campaign to ‘combat stigmatisation and myth-making’ – not least in the field of psychiatric disorders.

For further details please contact:

Eske Willerslev on +45 2875 1309

Thomas Werge on +45 2218 6734

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