The brain's response to radiation exposure is an important concern for patients undergoing cancer therapy and astronauts on long missions in deep space. We assessed whether this response is specific and prolonged and is linked to epigenetic mechanisms. We focused on the response of the hippocampus at early (2-weeks) and late (20-week) time points following whole body proton irradiation. We examined two forms of DNA methylation, cytosine methylation (5mC) and hydroxymethylation (5hmC). Impairments in object recognition, spatial memory retention, and network stability following proton irradiation were observed at the two-week time point and correlated with altered gene expression and 5hmC profiles that mapped to specific gene ontology pathways. Significant overlap was observed between DNA methylation changes at the 2 and 20-week time points demonstrating specificity and retention of changes in response to radiation. Moreover, a novel class of DNA methylation change was observed following an environmental challenge (i.e. space irradiation), characterized by both increased and decreased 5hmC levels along the entire gene body. These changes were mapped to genes encoding neuronal functions including postsynaptic gene ontology categories. Thus, the brain's response to proton irradiation is both specific and prolonged and involves novel remodeling of non-random regions of the epigenome.
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