Background: Genetic variation in the guidance cue DCC gene is linked to psychopathologies involving dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex. We created an expression-based polygenic risk score (ePRS) based on the DCC coexpression gene network in the prefrontal cortex, hypothesizing that it would be associated with individual differences in total brain volume.
Methods: We filtered single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from genes coexpressed with DCC in the prefrontal cortex obtained from an adult postmortem donors database (BrainEAC) for genes enriched in children 1.5 to 11 years old (BrainSpan). The SNPs were weighted by their effect size in predicting gene expression in the prefrontal cortex, multiplied by their allele number based on an individual's genotype data, and then summarized into an ePRS. We evaluated associations between the DCC ePRS and total brain volume in children in 2 community-based cohorts: the Maternal Adversity, Vulnerability and Neurodevelopment (MAVAN) and University of California, Irvine (UCI) projects. For comparison, we calculated a conventional PRS based on a genome-wide association study of total brain volume.
Results: Higher ePRS was associated with higher total brain volume in children 8 to 10 years old (β = 0.212, p = 0.043; n = 88). The conventional PRS at several different thresholds did not predict total brain volume in this cohort. A replication analysis in an independent cohort of newborns from the UCI study showed an association between the ePRS and newborn total brain volume (β = 0.101, p = 0.048; n = 80). The genes included in the ePRS demonstrated high levels of coexpression throughout the lifespan and are primarily involved in regulating cellular function.
Limitations: The relatively small sample size and age differences between the main and replication cohorts were limitations.
Conclusion: Our findings suggest that the DCC coexpression network in the prefrontal cortex is critically involved in whole brain development during the first decade of life. Genes comprising the ePRS are involved in gene translation control and cell adhesion, and their expression in the prefrontal cortex at different stages of life provides a snapshot of their dynamic recruitment.
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