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Posts Tagged ‘autism’

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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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Summer, Brody and Audric Hug
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If you have a minute, check out this “Autism Sensory Overload Simulation” video to get a feel for the perceptual difficulties experienced by people with autism spectrum disorders.  A recent article, “Critical Period Plasticity Is Disrupted in the Barrel Cortex of Fmr1 Knockout Mice” [doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.024] provides some clues to the cellular mechanisms that are involved in this phenomenon.  The authors examined the developing somatosensory cortex in lab mice who carry a mutation in a gene called FMR1.  The normal function of this gene is to help synapses mature and optimize their strength through a process known as activity-dependent plasticity.  This a kind of “use-it-or-lose-it” neural activity that is important when you are practicing and practicing to learn something new – say, like riding a bike, or learning a new language.  Improvements in performance that come from “using” the circuits in the brain are correlated with optimized synaptic connections – via a complex set of biochemical reactions (eg. AMPA receptor trafficking).

When FMR1 is not functioning, neuronal connections (in this case, synapses that connect the thalamus to the somatosensory cortex) cannot mature and develop properly.  This wreaks havoc in the developing brain where maturation can occur in successive critical periods – where the maturation of one circuit is needed to ensure the subsequent development of another.  Hence, the authors suggest, the type of sensory overload reported in the autism spectrum disorders may be related to a similar type of developmental anomaly in the somatosensory cortex.

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Some quick sketches that might help put the fast-growing epigenetics and cognitive development literature into context.  Visit the University of Utah’s Epigenetics training site for more background!

The genome is just the A,G,T,C bases that encode proteins and other mRNA molecules.  The “epi”genome are various modification to the DNA – such as methylation (at C residues) – and acetylation of histone proteins.   These changes help the DNA form various secondary and tertiary structures that can facilitate or block the interaction of DNA with the transcriptional machinery.

When DNA is highly methylated, it generally is less accessible for transcription and hence gene expression is reduced.  When histone proteins (purple blobs that help DNA coil into a compact shape) are acetylated, the DNA is much more accessible and gene expression goes up.

We know that proper epigenetic regulation is critical for cognitive development because mutations in MeCP2 – a protein that binds to methylated C residues – leads to Rett syndrome.  MeCP2 is normally responsible for binding to methylated DNA and recruiting histone de-acetylases (HDACs) to help DNA coil and condense into a closed form that is inaccessible for gene expression (related post here).

When DNA is accessible for gene expression, then it appears that – during brain development – there are relatively more synaptic spines produced (related post here).  Is this a good thing? Rett syndrome would suggest that – NO – too many synaptic spines and too much excitatory activity during brain development may not be optimal.  Neither is too little excitatory (too much inhibitory) activity and too few synaptic spines.  It is likely that you need just the right balance (related post here). Some have argued (here) that autism & schizophrenia are consequences of too many & too few synapses during development.

The sketch above illustrates a theoretical conjecture – not a scenario that has been verified by extensive scientific study. It tries to explain why epigenetic effects can, in practice, be difficult to disentangle from true (changes in the A,G,T,C sequence) genetic effects.  This is because – for one reason – a mother’s experience (extreme stress, malnutrition, chemical toxins) can – based on some evidence – exert an effect on the methylation of her child’s genome.  Keep in mind, that methylation is normal and widespread throughout the genome during development.  However, in this scenario, if the daughter’s behavior or physiology were to be influenced by such methylation, then she could, in theory, when reaching reproductive age, expose her developing child to an environment that leads to altered methylation (shown here of the grandaughter’s genome).  Thus, an epigenetic change would look much like there is a genetic variant being passed from one generation to the next, but such a genetic variant need not exist (related post here, here) – as its an epigenetic phenomenon.  Genes such as BDNF have been the focus of many genetic/epigenetic studies (here, here) – however, much, much more work remains to determine and understand just how much stress/malnutrition/toxin exposure is enough to cause such multi-generational effects.  Disentangling the interaction of genetics with the environment (and its influence on the epigenome) is a complex task, and it is very difficult to prove the conjecture/model above, so be sure to read the literature and popular press on these topics carefully.

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The recent paper, “Comparative genomics of autism and schizophrenia” by Bernard Crespi and colleagues provides a very exciting take on how genetic data can be mined to understand cognitive development and mental illness.  Looking at genetic association data for autism and schizophrenia, the authors point out that 4 loci are associated with both schizophrenia and autism – however, with a particular twist.  In the case of 1q21.1 and 22q11.21 it seems that genetic deletions are associated with schizophrenia while duplications at this locus are associated with autism.  At 16p11.2 and 22q13.3  it seems that duplications are associated with schizophrenia and deletions are associated with autism.  Thus both loci contain genes that regulate brain development such that too much (duplication) or too little (deletion) of these genes can cause brain development to go awry.  The authors point to genes involved in cellular and synaptic growth for which loss-of-function in growth inhibition genes (which would cause overgrowth) have been associated with autism while loss-of-function in growth promoting genes (which would cause undergrowth) have been associated with schizophrenia.  Certainly there is much evidence for overproduction of synapses in the autism-spectrum disorders and loss of synapses in schizophrenia.  Crespi et al., [doi:10.1073/pnas.0906080106]

Other research covered (here, here) demonstrates the importance of the proper balance of excitatory and inhibitory signalling during cortical development.

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*** PODCAST accompanies this post ***

Nowadays, it seems that genomics is spreading beyond the rarefied realm of science and academia into the general, consumer-based popular culture.  Quelle surprise!?  Yes, the era of the personal genome is close at hand, even as present technology  provides – directly to the general consumer public – a  genome-wide sampling of many hundreds of thousands of single nucleotide variants.   As curious early adopters begin to surf their personal genomic information, one might wonder how they, and  homo sapiens in general, will ultimately utilize their genome information.  Interestingly, some have already adapted the personal genome to facilitate what homo sapiens loves to do most – that is, to interact with one another.  They are at the vanguard of a new and hip form of social interaction known as “personal genome sharing”.  People connecting in cyberspace – via  haplotype or sequence alignment – initiating new social contacts with distant cousins (of which there may be many tens of thousands at 5th cousins and beyond).  Sharing genes that regulate the social interaction of sharing genes, as it were.

A broader view of social genes, within the context of our neo-Darwinian synthesis, however, shows that the relationship between the genome and social behavior can be rather complex.  When genes contribute directly to the fitness of an organism (eg. sharper tooth and claw), it is relatively straightforward to explain how novel fitness-conferring genetic variants increase in frequency from generation to generation.  Even when genetic variants are selfish, that is, when they subvert the recombination or gamete production machinery, in some cases to the detriment of their individual host, they can still readily spread through populations.  However, when a new genetic variant confers a fitness benefit to unrelated individuals by enhancing a cooperative or reciprocally-altruistic form of social interaction, it becomes more difficult to explain how such a novel genetic variant can take hold and spread in a large, randomly mating population.  Debates on the feasibility natural selection acting “above the level of the individual” seem settled against this proposition.  However, even in the face of such difficult population genetic conundrums, research on the psychology, biology and evolutionary genetics of social interactions continues unabated.  Like our primate and other mammalian cousins, with whom homo sapiens shares some 90-99% genetic identity, we are an intensely social species as our literature, poetry, music, cinema, not to mention the more recent twittering, myspacing, facebooking and genome-sharing demonstrate.

Indeed, many of the most compelling examples of genetic research on social interactions are those that reveal the devastating impacts on psychological development and function when social interaction is restricted.  In cases of maternal and/or peer-group social separation stress, the effects on gene expression in the brain are dramatic and lead to long-lasting consequences on human emotional function.  Studies on loneliness by John Cacioppo and colleagues reveal that even the perception of loneliness is aversive enough to raise arousal levels which, may, have adaptive value.  A number of specific genes have been shown to interact with a history of neglect or maltreatment in childhood and, subsequently, increase the risk of depression or emotional lability in adulthood.  Clearly then, despite the difficulties in explaining how new “social genes” arise and take hold in populations, the human genome been shaped over evolutionary time to function optimally within the context of a social group.

From this perspective, a new paper, “Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans” by Sarina Rodrigues and colleagues [doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0909579106] may be of broad interest as a recent addition to a long-standing, but now very rapidly growing, flow of genetic research on genes and social interactions.  The research team explored just a single genetic variant in the gene encoding the receptor for a small neuropeptide known as oxytocin, a protein with well-studied effects on human social interactions.  Intra-nasal administration of oxytocin, for example, has been reported to enhance eye-gaze, trust, generosity and the ability to infer the emotional state of others.  In the Rodrigues et al., study, a silent G to A change (rs53576) within exon 3 of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene is used to subgroup an ethnically diverse population of 192 healthy college students who participated in assessments for pro-social traits such as the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (RMET) test of empathetic accuracy as well as measures of dispositional empathy.  Although an appraisal of emotionality in others is not a cooperative behavior per se, it has been demonstrated to be essential for healthy social function.  The Rodrigues et al., team find that the subgroup of students who carried the GG genotype were more accurate and able to discern the emotional state of others than students who carried the A-allele.  Such molecular genetic results are an important branching point to further examine neural and cognitive mechanisms of empathy as well as long-standing population genetic concerns of how new genetic variants like the A-allele of rs53576 arose and managed to take-hold in human populations.

Regarding the latter, there are many avenues for inquiry, but oxytocin’s role in the regulation of the reproductive cycle and social behavior stands out as an ideal target for natural selection.  Reproductive and behavioral-genetic factors that influence the ritualized interactions between males and females have been demonstrated to be targets of natural selection during the process of speciation.  New variants can reduce the cross-mating of closely related species who might otherwise mate and produce sterile or inviable hybrid offspring.  So-called pre-mating speciation mechanisms are an efficient means, therefore, to ensure that reproduction leads to fit and fertile offspring.  In connection with this idea, reports of an eye-gaze assessment similar to the RMET test used by Rodrigues et al., revealed that women’s pupils dilate more widely to photos of men they were sexually attracted to during their period of the menstrual cycle of greatest fertility, thus demonstrating a viable link between social preference and reproductive biology.  However, in the Rodrigues et al., study, it was the G-allele that was associated with superior social appraisal and this allele is not the novel allele, but rather the ancestral allele that is carried by chimpanzees, macaques and orangutans.  Therefore, it does not seem that the novel A-allele would have been targeted by natural selection in this type of pre-mating social-interaction scenrio.  Might other aspects of OXTR function provide more insight then?  Rodrigues et al.,  explore the role of the gene beyond the social interaction dimension and note that OXTR is widely expressed in limbic circuitry and also plays a broader modulatory role in many emotional reactivity.  For this reason, they sought to assess the stress responsivity of the participants via changes in heart-rate that are elicited by the unpredictable onset of an acoustic startle.  The results show that the A-allele carriers showed greater stress reactivity and also greater scores on a 12-point scale of affective reactivity.  Might greater emotional vigilance in the face of adversity confer a fitness advantage for A-allele carriers? Perhaps this could be further explored.

Regarding the neural and cognitive mechanisms of empathy and other pro-social traits, the Rodrigues et al., strategy demonstrates that when human psychological research includes genetic information it can more readily be informed by a wealth of non-human animal models.  Comparisons of genotype-phenotype correlations at the behavioral, physiological, anatomical and cellular levels across different model systems is one general strategy for generating hypotheses about how a gene like OXTR mediates and moderates cognitive function and also why it (and human behavior) evolved.  For example, mice that lack the OXTR gene show higher levels of aggression and deficits in social recognition memory.  In humans, genetic associations of the A-allele with autism, and social loneliness form possible translational bridges.  In other areas of human psychology such as in the areas of attention and inhibition, several genetic variants correlate with specific  mental operations and areas of brain activation.  The psychological construct of inhibition, once debated purely from a behavioral psychological perspective, is now better understood to be carried out by a collection of neural networks that function in the lateral frontal cortex as well as basal ganglia and frontal midline.  Individual differences in the activation of these brain regions have been shown to relate to genetic differences in a number of dopaminergic genes, whose function in animal models is readily linked to the physiologic function of specific neural circuits and types of synapses.  In the area of social psychology, where such types of neuroimaging-genetic studies are just getting underway, the use of “hyper-scanning”, a method that involves the simultaneous neuroimaging of two or more individuals playing a social game (prisoners dilemma) reveals a co-activation of dopamine-rich brain areas when players are able to make sound predictions of other participant’s choices.  These types of social games can model specific aspects of reciprocal social interactions such as trust, punishment, policing, sanctions etc. that have been postulated to support the evolution of social behavior via reciprocal altruism.  Similar imaging work showed that intra-nasal administration of oxytocin potently reduced amygdala activation and decreased amygdala coupling to brainstem regions implicated in autonomic and behavioural manifestations of fear.  Such recent examples affirm the presence of a core neural circuitry involved in social interaction whose anatomical and physiological properties can be probed using genetic methods in human and non-human populations.

Although there will remain complexities in explaining how new “social genes” can arise and move through evolutionary space and time (let alone cyberspace!) the inter-flows of genetic data and social psychological function in homo sapiens will likely increase.  The rising tide should inevitably force both psychologists and evolutionary biologists to break out of long-standing academic silos and work together to construct coherent models that are consistent with cognitive-genetic findings as well as population- genetic and phylogenetic data.  Such efforts will heavily depend on a foundation of psychological research into “social genes” in a manner illustrated by Rodrigues et al.

*** PODCAST accompanies this post *** Thanks agian Dr. Rodrigues!!!

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By Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) 2007. The three ...
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File this story under “the more you know, the more you don’t know” or simply under “WTF!”  The new paper, “Microduplications of 16p11.2 are associated with schizophrenia” [doi:10.1038/ng.474] reveals that a short stretch of DNA on chromosome 16p11.2 is – very rarely – duplicated and – more rarely – deleted.  In an analysis of 8,590 individuals with schizophrenia, 2,172 with developmental delay or autism, 4,822 with bipolar disorder and 30,492 controls, the the microduplication of 16p11.2 was strongly associated with schizophrenia, bipolar and autism while the reciprocal microdeletion was strongly associated with developmental delay or autism – but not associated with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

OK, so the title of my post is misleading (hey, its a blog) since there are clearly many additional factors that contribute to the developmental outcome of autism vs. schizophrenia, but this stretch of DNA seems to hold clues about early development of brain systems that go awry in both disorders.  Here is a list of the brain expressed genes in this 600 kbp region (in order from telomere-side to centromere-side): SPN, QPRT, C16orf54, MAZ, PRRT2, C16orf53, MVP, CDIPT, SEZ6L2, ASPHD1, KCTD13, TMEM219, TAOK2, HIRIP3, INO80E, DOC2A, FLJ25404, FAM57B, ALDOA, PPP4C, TBX6, YPEL3, GDPD3, MAPK3, CORO1A.

Any guess as to which one(s) are the culprits?  I’ll go with HIRIP3 given its role in chromatin structure regulation – and the consequent regulation of under- (schiz?)/over- (autism) growth of synapses. What an amazing mystery to pursue.

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SfNneuroblogbadgeWhile most presentations at SfN cover brief snippets of research, yesterday it was a delight to hear the story of neurexins and neuroligins – the whole, decades worth of research, story – from Professor Thomas Sudhof, whose lab has been responsible for the purification and biochemical characterization of these proteins.  Without re-telling the tale here, a few neat highlights about these proteins who form a transynaptic bridge with neurexins on the pre-synaptic membrane binding to neuroligins on the post-synaptic membrane:
-neurexins were first purified using alpha-latrotoxin (a.k.a black widow venom!)

-there are thousands of spice variants of a single neurexin gene and these have rather specific affinities for different splice variants of neuroligins (how are these splicing events regulated to ensure the right pairs find each other?)

-the mere act of ectopic expression of neuroligins is sufficient induce the formation of synapses in neuronal cell lines – however this will not happen if the neuroligin is missing its neurexin binding domain.  Apparently, different neuroligin genes confer the formation of different types of inhibitory vs. excitatory synapses.

-interestingly, the deletion of any pair of the 3 (NL1,2,3) neuroligin genes has little effect – albeit for a few subtle social behavior phenotypes in mice.  Deletion of all 3 of the NL genes is lethal.

-In humans, mutations in neuroligins such as R87W and R451C are associated with autism spectrum disorder.  Apparently, these mutations do not fold properly and do not make it to the cell surface.

-The R451C mutation, when expressed in a mouse leads to more inhibitory synapses in the cortex and more excitatory synapses in the hippocampus.  The mice are BETTER able to learn/unlearn the water-maze paradigm but show subtle social affiliation phenotypes.

-There are a number of other mutations in genes that interact with the neurexins and neuroligins that are also associated with mental disability, suggesting that the proper regulation of synaptic organization and excitatory/inhibitory balance is a key aspect of optimal mental function.

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