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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Somatic mutations make twins’ brains less identical

There is a paradox at the heart of behavioural and psychiatric genetics. On the one hand, it is very clear that practically any psychological trait one cares to study is partly heritable - i.e., the differences in the trait between people are partly caused by differences in their genes. Similarly, psychiatric disorders are also highly heritable and, by now, mutations in hundreds of different genes have been identified that cause them.

However, these studies also highlight the limits of genetic determinism, which is especially evident in comparisons of monozygotic (identical) twins, who share all their genetic inheritance in common. Though they are obviously much more like each other in psychological traits than people who are not related to each other, they are clearly NOT identical to each other for these traits. For example, if one twin has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the chance that the other one will also suffer from the disorder is about 50% - massively higher than the population prevalence of the disorder (around 1%), but also clearly much less than 100%.

What is the source of this extra variance? What forces make monozygotic twins less identical? I have argued previously that random variation in the course of development is a major contributor. The developmental programme that specifies brain connectivity is less like a blueprint than a recipe (a recipe without a cook) – an incredibly complicated set of processes carried out by mindless biochemical algorithms mediated by local interactions between billions of individual components. As each of these processes is subject to some level of “noise” at the molecular level, it is not surprising that the outcome of this process varies considerably, even between monozygotic twins.

While such developmental variation can be referred to as “non-genetic”, a new study suggests that one important component of this variation may be genetic after all, just not inherited. Mutations can be passed on from parents to offspring or arise during generation of sperm or eggs and thus be inherited, but they can also arise any time DNA is replicated. So, each time a cell divides as an embryo grows and develops, there is a very small chance of new mutations being introduced. These “somatic” mutations (meaning ones that happen in the body and not in the germline) will be inherited by all the cells that are descendants of that new cell and so will be present in some fraction of the final cells of the individual. Mutations arising earlier in development will be inherited by more cells than those arising later.



Each person will therefore be a mosaic of cells with slightly different genetic make-up. The vast majority of such mutations will not have any effect of course (with the obvious exception of those that cause dysregulation of cellular differentiation and result in cancer). But sometimes a new mutation will affect a trait and cause a detectable difference. The most obvious examples are in genes affecting hair or eye colour – where a patch of hair may be a different colour, or the two eyes may be different colours.



But what if the mutations in question are linked to a psychiatric disorder? If such a mutation arises early in the development of the brain and is therefore inherited by many of the cells in the brain then this could lead to the psychiatric disorder, just as if the mutation had been inherited in a germ cell.

A new study adds to the evidence that such mutations do indeed occur at an appreciable frequency and may help explain the discordance in phenotype between pairs of twins where one has schizophrenia and the other does not. The authors analysed the DNA from blood cells of pairs of twins discordant for schizophrenia and their parents. They were looking for two different kinds of mutation: ones that changes the identity of a single base of DNA (one letter of the genetic code to another), called point mutations, and ones that delete or duplicate whole chunks of chromosomes, called copy number variants, or CNVs.

As expected, they were able to detect both inherited mutations (present in one of the parents) and de novo mutations (present in both twins but not in the blood cells of either parent). What is more remarkable though, is that they also detected de novo mutations present in the blood cells of one twin but not the other – lots of them. About 1,000 point mutations and 2-3 new CNVs not shared by the other twin. The implication is that these mutations arose during the somatic development of one twin. They identify a couple CNVs in the twins affected by schizophrenia, raising the (very speculative) possibility that those mutations may contribute to the development of the disorder. It will obviously require a lot more work to test that specific hypothesis.

An earlier study also found a high rate of somatic mosaicism for CNVs – this time by analysing the DNA of multiple tissues taken from single (deceased) individuals. Across 34 tissue samples from 3 subjects they identified six CNVs present in one tissue but not others. What this implies is that not only do we carry additional mutations making us even more different from one another, our cells and tissues can also be genetically different from each other.

Time will tell whether such mutations really do contribute to psychiatric disorders, but it certainly seems plausible that they might. This adds to a couple other potential mechanisms of increasing individual variance: the transposition of mobile DNA elements in somatic tissues, especially neurons, and the “epigenetic” silencing of regions of the genome, which may be clonally inherited in groups of cells and contribute to differences between twins.

This has one immediate and important consequence for clinical genetics. When a mutation in an offspring is not carried by either parent it is usually interpreted as having arisen de novo. The implication is that the risk of another offspring carrying the same mutation is negligible. Clinical geneticists are finding this is not necessarily always the case, however – apparently de novo mutations may have actually arisen at an early stage in the germline and not just at the final division generating the sperm or egg. The parent in question may not actually “carry” the mutation, but their germline does. Great care must therefore be taken when advising parents with one affected child of the risk to future offspring.


Maiti S, Kumar KH, Castellani CA, O'Reilly R, & Singh SM (2011). Ontogenetic de novo copy number variations (CNVs) as a source of genetic individuality: studies on two families with MZD twins for schizophrenia. PloS one, 6 (3) PMID: 21399695

Piotrowski, A., Bruder, C., Andersson, R., de Ståhl, T., Menzel, U., Sandgren, J., Poplawski, A., von Tell, D., Crasto, C., Bogdan, A., Bartoszewski, R., Bebok, Z., Krzyzanowski, M., Jankowski, Z., Partridge, E., Komorowski, J., & Dumanski, J. (2008). Somatic mosaicism for copy number variation in differentiated human tissues Human Mutation, 29 (9), 1118-1124 DOI: 10.1002/humu.20815

Fraga, M. (2005). From The Cover: Epigenetic differences arise during the lifetime of monozygotic twins Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (30), 10604-10609 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0500398102

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The miswired brain; making connections from neurodevelopment to psychopathology


Recent evidence indicates that psychiatric disorders can arise from differences, literally, in how the brain is wired during development. Psychiatric genetic approaches are finding new mutations associated with mental illness at an amazing rate, thanks to new genomic array and sequencing technologies. These mutations include so-called copy number variants (deletions or duplications of sections of a chromosome) or point mutations (a change in the code at one position of the DNA sequence). At the recent Wiring the Brain conference, we heard from Christopher Walsh, Guy Rouleau, Michael Gill and others of the identification of a number of new genes associated with neurological disorders, epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia.

The emerging picture is that each of these disorders can be caused by mutations in any one of a large number of genes. Strikingly, many of these genes play important roles in neural development, with mutations affecting patterns of cell migration, the guidance of growing nerve fibres and their connectivity to other cells. Even more remarkable has been the observation that most such mutations predispose to not just one specific illness (such as schizophrenia) but to mental illness in general, with a strong overlap in the genetics of schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, mental retardation, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other diagnostic categories. These different categories may thus represent arguably distinct endpoints arising from common origins in neurodevelopmental insults.

What we do not yet know is why. How does a mutation in a gene controlling say, the formation of connections between specific types of nerve cells, ultimately result in someone having paranoid delusions? (While another person carrying the same mutation may develop the quite different symptoms of autism at a much earlier age). Answering such questions will require much greater integration of efforts across a wide range of disciplines.

These efforts must include neurodevelopmental biologists. Over the past couple of decades, tremendous progress has been made in elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying nervous system development. In many cases, these advances have been made using fairly simply model systems – fruit flies and nematode worms have been favourites in this field, as well as simple parts of the vertebrate nervous system such as the spinal cord and retina. While more and more researchers are trying to figure out how these mechanisms apply in the vastly more complicated mammalian brain, we are still a long way from understanding how this structure develops. This is especially the case as much of the circuitry of the brain is not prespecified by genetic instructions down to the last synapse, but is strongly affected by patterns of electrical activity within developing circuits. Nevertheless, it has been possible to use animals with mutations in particular genes to figure out what the functions of these genes are in the development of specific brain circuits.

The logic of these approaches is fairly straightforward: in order to discover the normal function of Gene X, mutate it, look at what happens to some part of the brain and work backwards to deduce the cellular processes that have been affected. What is needed now, if neurodevelopmental biologists are to make a contribution to the study of mental illness, is a different approach. We must develop an interest in the phenotypes themselves, not just as tools to elucidate the gene’s normal functions. If mutations in Gene X can cause autism, for example, then a mouse with the same mutation becomes a valuable and informative model of disease. It becomes of interest to analyse not just the direct processes affected by the mutation but all of the knock-on consequences. While these questions may start with neurodevelopmental biologists they rapidly require additional expertise to address.

This will entail a framework to link investigations across levels of analysis typically carried out by researchers in quite different disciplines. For example, if the mutation affects formation of synaptic connections between certain types of cells in certain brain regions, then how does this change the function of the circuits involved? If this changes the activity of the circuit, then how does this affect further activity-depdendent development of interconnected regions? How does that affect the information processing capabilities of these networks? What cognitive functions are carried out by these networks and how are they impacted? At what level can we most directly translate findings in animals to humans? Each of these questions requires researchers in different disciplines to work together.

The imperative to do this could not be more stark. Roughly 10% of the world’s population is affected by mental illness at any one time, and over 25% will have some mental health problem over their lifetime. As well as the costs to individuals and their families, the public health and economic burdens from these disorders are massive, as large as that of cancer and cardiovascular disease. In fact, the proportional burden is growing as we are making good progress in treating the latter disorders, while mental illnesses have lagged far behind. This is mainly because we have not been able to apply the tools of molecular genetics to the problem. This is now changing, thanks to the revolutionary advances in psychiatric genetics. The challenge now will be to translate these discoveries into real understanding of disease mechanisms and ideas for novel therapies.

This post is based on a brief article that introduces a thematic series of reviews and primary research papers on the theme of Wiring the Brain. This series will appear across various journal titles of the open access publisher BioMed Central and can be accessed here.

Mitchell KJ (2011). The miswired brain: making connections from neurodevelopment to psychopathology. BMC biology, 9 (1) PMID: 21489316
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