Background: Although the study of gene regulation via the action of specific microRNAs (miRNAs) has experienced a boom in recent years, the analysis of genome-wide interaction networks among miRNAs and respective targeted mRNAs has lagged behind. MicroRNAs simultaneously target many transcripts and fine-tune the expression of genes through cooperative/combinatorial targeting. Therefore, they have a large regulatory potential that could widely impact development and progression of diseases, as well as contribute unpredicted collateral effects due to their natural, pathophysiological, or treatment-induced modulation. We support the viewpoint that whole mirnome-transcriptome interaction analysis is required to better understand the mechanisms and potential consequences of miRNA regulation and/or deregulation in relevant biological models. In this study, we tested the hypotheses that ethanol consumption induces changes in miRNA-mRNA interaction networks in the mouse frontal cortex and that some of the changes observed in the mouse are equivalent to changes in similar brain regions from human alcoholics.
Results: miRNA-mRNA interaction networks responding to ethanol insult were identified by differential expression analysis and weighted gene coexpression network analysis (WGCNA). Important pathways (coexpressed modular networks detected by WGCNA) and hub genes central to the neuronal response to ethanol are highlighted, as well as key miRNAs that regulate these processes and therefore represent potential therapeutic targets for treating alcohol addiction. Importantly, we discovered a conserved signature of changing miRNAs between ethanol-treated mice and human alcoholics, which provides a valuable tool for future biomarker/diagnostic studies in humans. We report positively correlated miRNA-mRNA expression networks that suggest an adaptive, targeted miRNA response due to binge ethanol drinking.
Conclusions: This study provides new evidence for the role of miRNA regulation in brain homeostasis and sheds new light on current understanding of the development of alcohol dependence. To our knowledge this is the first report that activated expression of miRNAs correlates with activated expression of mRNAs rather than with mRNA downregulation in an in vivo model. We speculate that early activation of miRNAs designed to limit the effects of alcohol-induced genes may be an essential adaptive response during disease progression.