Scientists have pinpointed the cells that are likely to trigger common brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and intellectual disabilities.

It is the first time researchers have been able to identify the particular cell types that malfunction in a wide range of brain diseases.

Scientists say the findings offer a roadmap for the development of new therapies to target the conditions.

The researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences used advanced gene analysis techniques to investigate which genes were switched on in specific types of brain cells.

They then compared this information with genes that are known to be linked to each of the most common brain conditions — Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety disorders, autism, intellectual disability, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and epilepsy.

Their findings reveal that for some conditions, the support cells rather than the neurons that transmit messages in the brain are most likely to be the first affected.

Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is characterised by damage to the neurons. Previous efforts to treat the condition have focused on trying to repair this damage.

Microglial cells

The study found that a different cell type — called microglial cells — are responsible for triggering Alzheimer’s and that damage to the neurons is a secondary symptom of disease progression.

Image shows 3 DNA strands.

Researchers say that developing medicines that target microglial cells could offer hope for treating the illness.

The approach could also be used to find new treatment targets for other diseases that have a genetic basis, the researchers say.

Dr Nathan Skene, who carried out the study with Professor Seth Grant, said: “The brain is the most complex organ made up from a tangle of many cell types and sorting out which of these cells go wrong in disease is of critical importance to developing new medicines.”

Professor Seth Grant said: “We are in the midst of scientific revolution where advanced molecular methods are disentangling the Gordian Knot of the brain and completely unexpected new pathways to solving diseases are emerging. There is a pressing need to exploit the remarkable insights from the study.”

ABOUT THIS GENETICS RESEARCH

Funding: The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the European Union.

Source: Jen Middleton – University of Edinburgh
Image Source: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Full open access research for “Identification of Vulnerable Cell Types in Major Brain Disorders Using Single Cell Transcriptomes and Expression Weighted Cell Type Enrichment” by Nathan G. Skene and Seth G. N. Grant in Frontiers in Neuroscience. Published online January 27 2016 doi:10.3389/fnins.2016.00016


Abstract

Identification of Vulnerable Cell Types in Major Brain Disorders Using Single Cell Transcriptomes and Expression Weighted Cell Type Enrichment

The cell types that trigger the primary pathology in many brain diseases remain largely unknown. One route to understanding the primary pathological cell type for a particular disease is to identify the cells expressing susceptibility genes. Although this is straightforward for monogenic conditions where the causative mutation may alter expression of a cell type specific marker, methods are required for the common polygenic disorders. We developed the Expression Weighted Cell Type Enrichment (EWCE) method that uses single cell transcriptomes to generate the probability distribution associated with a gene list having an average level of expression within a cell type. Following validation, we applied EWCE to human genetic data from cases of epilepsy, Schizophrenia, Autism, Intellectual Disability, Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and anxiety disorders. Genetic susceptibility primarily affected microglia in Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis; was shared between interneurons and pyramidal neurons in Autism and Schizophrenia; while intellectual disabilities and epilepsy were attributable to a range of cell-types, with the strongest enrichment in interneurons. We hypothesized that the primary cell type pathology could trigger secondary changes in other cell types and these could be detected by applying EWCE to transcriptome data from diseased tissue. In Autism, Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease we find evidence of pathological changes in all of the major brain cell types. These findings give novel insight into the cellular origins and progression in common brain disorders. The methods can be applied to any tissue and disorder and have applications in validating mouse models.

“Identification of Vulnerable Cell Types in Major Brain Disorders Using Single Cell Transcriptomes and Expression Weighted Cell Type Enrichment” by Nathan G. Skene and Seth G. N. Grant in Frontiers in Neuroscience. Published online January 27 2016 doi:10.3389/fnins.2016.00016