Ask any neuroscientist to name the most profound discoveries in the field in the past 60 years, and at or near the top of the list will be a phenomenon or technique related to genes and their expression. Indeed, our understanding of genetics and gene regulation has ushered in whole new systems of knowledge and new empirical approaches, many of which could not have even been imagined prior to the molecular biology boon of recent decades. Neurochemistry, in the classic sense, intersects with these concepts in the manifestation of neuropeptides, obviously dependent upon the central dogma (the established rules by which DNA sequence is eventually converted into protein primary structure) not only for their conformation but also for their levels and locales of expression. But, expanding these considerations to non-peptide neurotransmitters illustrates how gene regulatory events impact neurochemistry in a much broader sense, extending beyond the neurochemicals that translate electrical signals into chemical ones in the synapse, to also include every aspect of neural development, structure, function, and pathology. From the beginning, the mutability – yet relative stability – of genes and their expression patterns were recognized as potential substrates for some of the most intriguing phenomena in neurobiology – those instances of plasticity required for learning and memory. Near-heretical speculation was offered in the idea that perhaps the very sequence of the genome was altered to encode memories. A fascinating component of the intervening progress includes evidence that the central dogma is not nearly as rigid and consistent as we once thought. And this mutability extends to the potential to manipulate that code for both experimental and clinical purposes.
Astonishing progress has been made in the molecular biology of neurochemistry during the 60 years since this journal debuted. Many of the gains in conceptual understanding have been driven by methodological progress, from automated high-throughput sequencing instruments to recombinant-DNA vectors that can convey color-coded genetic modifications in the chromosomes of live adult animals. This review covers the highlights of these advances, both theoretical and technological, along with a brief window into the promising science ahead.