Cradle to grave: Brain scanning

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  • Published: Jan 7, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Cradle to grave: Brain scanning

Brainy structure

Common Variants in Psychiatric Risk Genes Predict Brain Structure at Birth

Structural changes in the brain revealed by magnetic resonance imaging are tied to common gene variants linked to disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and autism and can be observed in brain scans of newborn infants.

In research that was funded by the US National Institutes of Health, Rebecca Knickmeyer of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and colleagues John Gilmore, Jiaping Wang, Hongtu Zhu, Xiujuan Geng, Sandra Woolson, Robert Hamer, Thomas Konneker, Weili Lin and Martin Styner, show how certain changes in the brain found in adults are associated with common gene variants present at birth.

Psychiatric risk

"These results suggest that prenatal brain development may be a very important influence on psychiatric risk later in life," explains Knickmeyer. The team studied 272 infants who received MRI scans at UNC Hospitals soon after birth. The infants' DNA was also tested for ten common variants - polymorphisms - of seven genes that were previously linked to brain structure in adults. As well as an association with those disorders listed earlier, the genes have implications for the development of bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and depression.

Knickmeyer explains that for several of the polymorphisms investigated, such as a variant in the APOE gene which has been associated with Alzheimer's disease, the brain changes seen in the infants looked very similar to brain changes found in adults with the same variant. "This could stimulate an exciting new line of research focused on preventing onset of illness through very early intervention in at-risk individuals," Knickmeyer adds. However, this assertion to did not apply generally, Gilmore concedes.

Genetic variants

For example, the team also studies two variants in the DISC1 gene. With one of those variants, referred to as rs821616, the infant brains looked very similar to the brains of adults with this variant. But there was no such similarity between infant brains and adult brains for the other variant, rs6675281. "This suggests that the brain changes associated with this gene variant aren't present at birth but develop later in life, perhaps during puberty," Gilmore adds. "It's fascinating that different variants in the same gene have such unique effects in terms of when they affect brain development," says Knickmeyer. Of course, such changes might preclude the screening of newborn infants for brain structures that might be linked to problems that may or may not emerge later in their lives.

Related Links

Cerebral Cortex, 2013, online: "Common Variants in Psychiatric Risk Genes Predict Brain Structure at Birth"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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