Background: The mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration in the striatum of Huntingon's Disease (HD) brain are currently unknown. While the striatum is massively degenerated in symptomatic individuals, which makes cellular characterization difficult, it is largely intact in asymptomatic HD gene positive (HD+) individuals. Unfortunately, as striatal tissue samples from HD+ individuals are exceedingly rare, recent focus has been on the Brodmann Area 9 (BA9), a relatively unaffected region, as a surrogate tissue. In this study, we analyze gene expression in caudate nucleus (CAU) from two HD+ individuals and compare the results with healthy and symptomatic HD brains.
Methods: High-throughput mRNA sequencing (mRNA-Seq) datasets were generated from post-mortem CAU of 2 asymptomatic HD+ individuals and compared with 26 HD and 56 neurologically normal controls. Datasets were analyzed using a custom bioinformatic analysis pipeline to identify and interpret differentially expressed (DE) genes. Results were compared to publicly available brain mRNA-Seq datasets from the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project. The analysis employed current state of the art bioinformatics tools and tailored statistical and machine learning methods.
Results: The transcriptional profiles in HD+ CAU and HD BA9 samples are highly similar. Differentially expressed (DE) genes related to the heat shock response, particularly HSPA6 and HSPA1A, are common between regions. The most perturbed pathways show extensive agreement when comparing disease with control. A random forest classifier predicts that the two HD+ CAU samples strongly resemble HD BA9 and not control BA9. Nonetheless, when genes were prioritized by their specificity to HD+ CAU, pathways spanning many biological processes emerge. Comparison of HD+ BA9 with HD BA9 identified NPAS4 and REST1/2 as potential early responders to disease and reflect the active disease process.
Conclusions: The caudate nucleus in HD brain is dramatically affected prior to symptom onset. Gene expression patterns observed in the HD BA9 are also present in the CAU, suggesting a common response to disease. Substantial caudate-specific differences implicate many different biological pathways including metabolism, protein folding, inflammation, and neurogenic processes. While these results are at best trends due to small sample sizes, these results nonetheless provide the most detailed insight to date into the primary HD disease process.
Keywords: Bioinformatics; Differential expression; High throughput mRNA sequencing; Huntington’s disease; Machine learning; Neurodegeneration.