Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive fatal multisystemic neurodegenerative disorder caused by preferential degeneration of upper and lower motor neurons. To further delineate the genetic architecture of the disease, we used comprehensive panel sequencing in a cohort of 80 German ALS patients. The panel covered 39 confirmed ALS genes and candidate genes, as well as 238 genes associated with other entities of the neurodegenerative disease spectrum. In addition, we performed repeat length analysis for C9orf72. Our aim was to (1) identify potentially disease-causing variants, to (2) assess a proposed model of polygenic inheritance in ALS and to (3) connect ALS with other neurodegenerative entities. We identified 79 rare potentially pathogenic variants in 27 ALS associated genes in familial and sporadic cases. Five patients had pathogenic C9orf72 repeat expansions, a further four patients harbored intermediate length repeat expansions. Our findings demonstrate that a genetic background of the disease can actually be found in a large proportion of seemingly sporadic cases and that it is not limited to putative most frequently affected genes such as C9orf72 or SOD1. Assessing the polygenic nature of ALS, we identified 15 patients carrying at least two rare potentially pathogenic variants in ALS associated genes including pathogenic or intermediate C9orf72 repeat expansions. Multiple variants might influence severity or duration of disease or could account for intrafamilial phenotypic variability or reduced penetrance. However, we could not observe a correlation with age of onset in this study. We further detected potentially pathogenic variants in other neurodegeneration associated genes in 12 patients, supporting the hypothesis of common pathways in neurodegenerative diseases and linking ALS to other entities of the neurodegenerative spectrum. Most interestingly we found variants in GBE1 and SPG7 which might represent differential diagnoses. Based on our findings, we recommend two-staged genetic testing for ALS in Germany in patients with familial and sporadic ALS, comprising C9orf72 repeat analysis followed by comprehensive panel sequencing including differential diagnoses that impair motor neuron function to meet the complexity of ALS genetics.
Keywords: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; genetic heterogeneity; neurodegeneration; next generation sequencing; polygenic inheritance.