Background: Studies of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have revealed a strong multigenic basis with the identification of hundreds of ASD susceptibility genes. ASD is characterized by social deficits and a range of other phenotypes, implicating complex genetics and involvement of a variety of brain regions. However, how mutations and mis-expression of select gene sets are associated with the behavioral components of ASD remains unknown. We reasoned that for genes to be associated with ASD core behaviors they must be: (1) expressed in brain regions relevant to ASD social behaviors and (2) expressed during the ASD susceptible window of brain development.
Methods: Focusing on the amygdala, a brain region whose dysfunction has been highly implicated in the social component of ASD, we mined publicly available gene expression databases to identify ASD-susceptibility genes expressed during human and mouse amygdala development. We found that a large cohort of known ASD susceptibility genes is expressed in the developing human and mouse amygdala. We further performed analysis of single-nucleus RNA-seq (snRNA-seq) data from microdissected amygdala tissue from five ASD and five control human postmortem brains ranging in age from 4 to 20 years to elucidate cell type specificity of amygdala-expressed genes and their dysregulation in ASD.
Results: Our analyses revealed that of the high-ranking ASD susceptibility genes, 80 are expressed in both human and mouse amygdala during fetal to early postnatal stages of development. Our human snRNA-seq analyses revealed cohorts of genes with altered expression in the ASD amygdala postnatally, especially within excitatory neurons, with dysregulated expression of seven genes predicted from our datamining pipeline.
Limitations: We were limited by the ages for which we were able to obtain human tissue; therefore, the results from our datamining pipeline approach will require validation, to the extent possible, in human tissue from earlier developmental stages.
Conclusions: Our pipeline narrows down the number of amygdala-expressed genes possibly involved in the social pathophysiology of ASD. Our human single-nucleus gene expression analyses revealed that ASD is characterized by changes in gene expression in specific cell types in the early postnatal amygdala.
Keywords: ASD genes; Amygdala; Autism spectrum disorder; Brain development; Single nucleus RNA sequencing.