Beyond modules and hubs: the potential of gene coexpression networks for investigating molecular mechanisms of complex brain disorders

Genes Brain Behav. 2014 Jan;13(1):13-24. doi: 10.1111/gbb.12106. Epub 2013 Dec 10.


In a research environment dominated by reductionist approaches to brain disease mechanisms, gene network analysis provides a complementary framework in which to tackle the complex dysregulations that occur in neuropsychiatric and other neurological disorders. Gene-gene expression correlations are a common source of molecular networks because they can be extracted from high-dimensional disease data and encapsulate the activity of multiple regulatory systems. However, the analysis of gene coexpression patterns is often treated as a mechanistic black box, in which looming 'hub genes' direct cellular networks, and where other features are obscured. By examining the biophysical bases of coexpression and gene regulatory changes that occur in disease, recent studies suggest it is possible to use coexpression networks as a multi-omic screening procedure to generate novel hypotheses for disease mechanisms. Because technical processing steps can affect the outcome and interpretation of coexpression networks, we examine the assumptions and alternatives to common patterns of coexpression analysis and discuss additional topics such as acceptable datasets for coexpression analysis, the robust identification of modules, disease-related prioritization of genes and molecular systems and network meta-analysis. To accelerate coexpression research beyond modules and hubs, we highlight some emerging directions for coexpression network research that are especially relevant to complex brain disease, including the centrality-lethality relationship, integration with machine learning approaches and network pharmacology.

Keywords: Coexpression; complex diseases; coregulation; depression; gene; hub; module; network; post-mortem; regulatory network; small-world; transcriptome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / genetics*
  • Transcription, Genetic*