A problematic study of DNA methylation in frontal cortex development and schizophrenia

This 2015 Baltimore human study found:

CpGs that differ between schizophrenia patients and controls that were enriched for genes related to development and neurodifferentiation.

The schizophrenia-associated CpGs strongly correlate with changes related to the prenatal-postnatal transition and show slight enrichment for GWAS [genome-wide association study] risk loci while not corresponding to CpGs differentiating adolescence from later adult life.

Only a fraction of the illness-associated CpGs, 4.6%, showed association to nearby genetic variants in the meQTL [methylation quantitative trait loci] analysis, further suggesting that these findings may be more related to the epiphenomena of the illness state than to the genetic causes of the disorder.

These data implicate an epigenetic component to the developmental origins of this disorder.”

It wasn’t surprising in 2015 to find “an epigenetic component to the developmental origins of this disorder.” From the supplementary material:

“Diverse chromatin states suggest vastly different epigenetic landscapes of the prenatal versus postnatal human brain.

Approximately half of the CpGs had DNAm [DNA methylation] levels positively correlated with expression across the lifespan, and half had DNAm levels negatively correlated.

These results suggest that many of the epigenetic changes occurring between prenatal and postnatal life in prefrontal cortex manifest in the transcriptome, and that the directionality of association is not strictly linked to the location of the CpG or DMR [differentially methylated region] with respect to an annotated gene.

Diagnosis-associated CpGs were relatively small compared with those differentially methylated between fetal and postnatal samples.”


The studied brain area was limited to the dorsolateral portion of the prefrontal cortex, which isn’t mature in humans until we’re in our late teens/early twenties.

The researchers ignored brain areas that were fully developed or further along in development – such as the limbic system – during “the prenatal-postnatal transition.”

The researchers thus intentionally blinded themselves from possibly discovering “many of the epigenetic changes occurring between prenatal and postnatal life” associated with schizophrenia and these more-developed brain areas.

Where’s the evidence that the developmental origins of schizophrenia have no associations with brain structures that closely approximate their lifelong functionalities at birth?


The study’s limitations didn’t hamper researcher hubris in a press release for a site that touts business news, such as:

“This conclusion, while perhaps not the final verdict on the subject, is hard to resist given this remarkable evidence”

Did the spokesperson really understand GWAS, or was he trying to exploit public ignorance of GWAS?

There’s a scientist’s view of GWAS at What do GWAS signals mean? that better puts this study’s findings into perspective. When understanding GWAS at an individual level, it should also be acknowledged that Genetic statistics don’t necessarily predict the effects of an individual’s genes.

http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.4181.html “Mapping DNA methylation across development, genotype and schizophrenia in the human frontal cortex”

Full study link from the press release

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