Archive for the ‘Cerebellum’ Category

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The A-to-T SNP rs7794745 in the CNTNAP2 gene was found to be associated with increased risk of autism (see Arking et al., 2008).  Specifically, the TT genotype, found in about 15% of individuals, increases these folks’ risk by about 1.2-1.7-fold.  Sure enough, when I checked my 23andMe profile, I found that I’m one of these TT risk-bearing individuals.  Interesting, although not alarming since me and my kids are beyond the age where one typically worries about autism.  Still, one can wonder if such a risk factor might have exerted some influence on the development of my brain?

The recent paper by Tan et al., “Normal variation in fronto-occipital circuitry and cerebellar structure with an autism-associated polymorphism of CNTNAP2” [doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.02.018 ] suggests there may be subtle, but still profound influences of the TT genotype on brain development in healthy individuals.  According to the authors, “homozygotes for the risk allele showed significant reductions in grey and white matter volume and fractional anisotropy in several regions that have already been implicated in ASD, including the cerebellum, fusiform gyrus, occipital and frontal cortices. Male homozygotes for the risk alleles showed greater reductions in grey matter in the right frontal pole and in FA in the right rostral fronto-occipital fasciculus compared to their female counterparts who showed greater reductions in FA of the anterior thalamic radiation.”

The FA (fractional anisotropy – a measurement of white-matter or myelination) results are consistent with a role of CNTNAP2 in the establishment of synaptic contacts and other cell-cell contacts especially at Nodes of Ranvier – which are critical for proper function of white-matter tracts that support rapid, long-range neural transmission.  Indeed, more severe mutations in CNTNAP2  have been associated with cortical dysplasia and focal epilepsy (Strauss et al., 2006).

Subtle changes perhaps influencing long-range information flow in my brain – wow!

More on CNTNAP2 … its evolutionary history and role in language development.

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Gravestone of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,Wallington
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Few events are as hard to understand as the loss of a loved one to suicide – a fatal confluence of factors that are oft scrutinized – but whose analysis can provide little comfort to family and friends.  To me, one frightening and vexing aspect of what is known about the biological roots of depression, anxiety, impulsivity and other mental traits and states associated with suicide, is the way in which early life (even prenatal) experience can influence events in later life.  As covered in this blog here and here, there appear to be very early interactions between emotional experience in early life and the methylation of specific points in the genome.  Such methylation – often referred to as epigenetic marks – can regulate the expression of genes that are important for synaptic plasticity and cognitive development.

The recent paper, “Alternative Splicing, Methylation State, and Expression Profile of Tropomyosin-Related Kinase B in the Frontal Cortex of Suicide Completers” is a recent example of a link between epigenetic marks and suicide.  The team of Ernst et al., examined gene expression profiles from the frontal cortex and cerebellum of 28 males lost to suicide and 11 control, ethnically-matched control participants.  Using a subject-by-subject comparison method described as “extreme value analysis” the team identified 2 Affymetrix probes: 221794_at and 221796_at – that are specific to NTRK2 (TRKB) gene – that showed significantly lower expression in several areas of the frontal cortex.  The team also found that these probes were specific to exon 16 – which is expressed only in the TRKB.T1 isoform that is expressed only in astrocytes.

Further analysis showed that there were no genetic differences in the promoter region of this gene that would explain the expression differences, but, however, that there were 2 methylation sites (epigenetic differences) whose methylation status correlated with expression levels (P=0.01 and 0.004).  As a control, the DNA-methylation at these sites was not correlated with TRKB.T1 expression when DNA and RNA was taken from the cerebellum (a control since the cerebellum is not thought to be directly involved in the regulation of mood).

In the case of TRKB.T1 expression, the team reports that more methylation at these 2 sites in the promoter region is associated with less TRKB.T1 expression in the frontal cortex.  Where and when are these marks laid down?  Are they reversible?  How can we know or suspect what is happening to our epigenome (you can’t measure this by spitting into a cup as with current genome sequencing methods)? To me, the team has identified an important clue from which such follow-up questions can be addressed.  Now that they have a biomarker, they can help us begin to better understand our complex and often difficult emotional lives within a broader biological context.

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Within the genetic news flow, there is often, and rightly so, much celebration when a gene for a disease is identified.  This is indeed an important first step, but often, the slogging from that point to a treatment – and the many small breakthroughs along the way – can go unnoticed. One reason why these 2nd (3rd, 4th, 5th …) steps are so difficult, is that in some cases, folks who carry “the gene” variant for a particular disorder, do not, in fact, display symptoms of the disorder.

Huh? One can carry the risk variant – or many risk variants – and not show any signs of illness?  Yes, this is an example of what geneticists refer to as variable penetrance, or the notion of carrying a mutation, but not outwardly displaying the mutant phenotype.  This, is one of the main reasons why genes are not deterministic, but much more probablistic in their influence of human development.

Of course, in the brain, such complexities exist, perhaps even moreso.  For example, take the neurological condition known as dystonia, a movement disorder that, according to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, “causes the muscles to contract and spasm involuntarily. The neurological mechanism that makes muscles relax when they are not in use does not function properly. Opposing muscles often contract simultaneously as if they are “competing” for control of a body part. The involuntary muscle contractions force the body into repetitive and often twisting movements as well as awkward, irregular postures.”  Presently there are more than a dozen genes and/or chromosomal loci that are associated with dystonia – two of the major genes, DYT1 and DYT6 – having been identified as factors in early onset forms of dystonia.  Now as we enter the era of personal genomes, an individual can assess their (own, child’s, preimplantion embryo’s!) genetic risk for such rare genetic variants – whose effects may not be visible until age 12 or older.  In the case of DYT1, this rare mutation (a GAG deletion at position 946 which causes a loss of a glutamate residue in the torsin A protein) gives rise to dystonia in about 30-40% of carriers.  So, how might these genes work and why do some individuals develop dystonia and others do not?  Indeed, these are the complexities that await in the great expanse between gene identification and treatment.

An inspection of the molecular aspects of torsin A (DYT1) show that it is a member of the AAA family of adenosine triphosphatases and is related to the Clp protease/heat shock family of genes that help to properly fold poly-peptide chains as they are secreted from the endoplasmic reticulum of the cell – a sort-of handyman, general purpose gene (expressed in almost every tissue in the body) that sits on an assembly line and hammers away to help make sure that proteins have the right shape as they come off their assembly linesNot much of a clue for dystonia – hmm.  Similarly, the THAP domain containing, apoptosis associated protein 1 (THAP1) gene (a.k.a. DYT6) is also expressed widely in the body and seems to function as a DNA binding protein that regulates aspects of cell cycle progression and apoptosis.  Also not much an obvious clue to dystonia – hmm, hmm.  Perhaps you can now see why the identification of “the gene” – something worth celebrating – can just leave you aghast at how much more you don’t know.

That these genes influence an early developmental form of the disorder suggests a possible developmental role for these rather generic cogs in the cellular machinery.  But where? how? & why an effect in some folks and not others?  To these questions, comes an amazing analysis of DYT1 and DYT6 carriers in the article entitled, “Cerebellothalamocortical Connectivity Regulates Penetrance in Dystonia” by Argyelan and colleagues [doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2300-09.2009]. In this article, the research team uses a method called diffusion tensor imaging (sensitive to white matter density) to examine brain structure and function among individuals who carry the mutations but either DO or DO NOT manifest the symptoms. By looking at white matter tracts (super highways of neural traffic) throughout the brain the team was able to ask whether some tracts were different in the 2 groups (as well as a group of unaffectd, non-carriers).  In this way, the team can begin to better understand the causal pathway between these run-of-the-mill genes (torsin A and thap1) and the complex pattern of muscle spasms that arise from their mutations.

To get right to the findings, the team has discovered that in one particular tract, a superhighway known as “cerebellar outflow pathway in the white matter of lobule VI, adjacent to the dentate nucleus” (not as quaint as Route 66) that those participants that DO manifest dystonia had less tract integrity and connectivity there compared to those that DO NOT manifest and healthy controls (who have the most connectivity there).  Subsequent measures of resting-state blood flow confirmed that the disruptions in white matter tracts were correlated with cerebellar outflow to the thalamus and – more importantly – with activity in areas of the motor cortex.  The correlations were such that individuals who DO manifest dystonia had greater activity in the motor cortex (this is what dystonia really comes down to — too much activity in the motor cortex).

Thus the team were able to query gene carriers using their imaging methods and zero-in on “where in the brain” these generic proteins exert a detrimental effect.  This seems to me, to be a huge step forward in understanding how a run-of-the-mill gene can alter brain function in such a profound way.  Now that they’ve found the likely circuit (is it the white matter per se or the neurons?), more focus can be applied to how this circuit develops – and can be repaired.

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Ataxin 1Image via Wikipedia The recent SNP association report, “Identification of loci associated with schizophrenia by genomewide association and follow-up (doi:10.1038/ng.201) by O’Donovan et. al, – an analysis of more than 370,000 Affymetrix SNPs on a population of 479 affected individuals – finds strong evidence for c in the zinc finger protein 804A (ZNF804A). One clue to the otherwise inscrutable history of this gene may lie in the findings of a yeast 2-hybrid screen where ataxin-1 was used as a bait. Mutations in ATXN1 can give rise to Spinocerebellar Ataxia, a degenerative condition of the cerebellum and spinal cord. Such profound developmental deficits, even if weakly expressed would be consistent with the many cognitive difficulties experienced by patients with schizophrenia.

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