Frontotemporal dementia is a heterogeneous neurodegenerative disorder characterized by neuronal loss in the frontal and temporal lobes. Despite progress in understanding which genes are associated with the aetiology of frontotemporal dementia, the biological basis of how mutations in these genes lead to cell loss in specific cortical regions remains unclear. In this work we combined gene expression data for 16,772 genes from the Allen Institute for Brain Science atlas with brain maps of gray matter atrophy in symptomatic C9orf72, GRN and MAPT mutation carriers obtained from the Genetic Frontotemporal dementia Initiative study. No significant association was seen between C9orf72, GRN and MAPT expression and the atrophy patterns in the respective genetic groups. After adjusting for spatial autocorrelation, between 1,000 and 5,000 genes showed a negative or positive association with the atrophy pattern within each individual genetic group, with the most significantly associated genes being TREM2, SSBP3 and GPR158 (negative association in C9orf72, GRN and MAPT respectively) and RELN, MXRA8 and LPA (positive association in C9orf72, GRN and MAPT respectively). An overrepresentation analysis identified a negative association with genes involved in mitochondrial function, and a positive association with genes involved in vascular and glial cell function in each of the genetic groups. A set of 423 and 700 genes showed significant positive and negative association, respectively, with atrophy patterns in all three maps. The gene set with increased expression in spared cortical regions was enriched for neuronal and microglial genes, while the gene set with increased expression in atrophied regions was enriched for astrocyte and endothelial cell genes. Our analysis suggests that these cell types may play a more active role in the onset of neurodegeneration in frontotemporal dementia than previously assumed, and in the case of the positively-associated cell marker genes, potentially through emergence of neurotoxic astrocytes and alteration in the blood-brain barrier respectively.
Keywords: Frontotemporal dementia; astrocytes; atrophy; gene expression; imaging genetics.