Both neuronal and genetic mechanisms regulate brain function. While there are excellent methods to study neuronal activity in vivo, there are no nondestructive methods to measure global gene expression in living brains. Here, we present a method, epigenetic MRI (eMRI), that overcomes this limitation via direct imaging of DNA methylation, a major gene-expression regulator. eMRI exploits the methionine metabolic pathways for DNA methylation to label genomic DNA through 13C-enriched diets. A 13C magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging method then maps the spatial distribution of labeled DNA. We validated eMRI using pigs, whose brains have stronger similarity to humans in volume and anatomy than rodents, and confirmed efficient 13C-labeling of brain DNA. We also discovered strong regional differences in global DNA methylation. Just as functional MRI measurements of regional neuronal activity have had a transformational effect on neuroscience, we expect that the eMRI signal, both as a measure of regional epigenetic activity and as a possible surrogate for regional gene expression, will enable many new investigations of human brain function, behavior, and disease.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2119891119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number10
StatePublished - Mar 8 2022


  • DNA methylation
  • gene expression
  • isotope labeling
  • NMR spectroscopy
  • spectroscopic imaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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