Brain gene co-expression networks link complement signaling with convergent synaptic pathology in schizophrenia

Nat Neurosci. 2021 Jun;24(6):799-809. doi: 10.1038/s41593-021-00847-z. Epub 2021 May 6.


The most significant common variant association for schizophrenia (SCZ) reflects increased expression of the complement component 4A (C4A). Yet, it remains unclear how C4A interacts with other SCZ risk genes or whether the complement system more broadly is implicated in SCZ pathogenesis. Here, we integrate several existing, large-scale genetic and transcriptomic datasets to interrogate the functional role of the complement system and C4A in the human brain. Unexpectedly, we find no significant genetic enrichment among known complement system genes for SCZ. Conversely, brain co-expression network analyses using C4A as a seed gene reveal that genes downregulated when C4A expression increases exhibit strong and specific genetic enrichment for SCZ risk. This convergent genomic signal reflects synaptic processes, is sexually dimorphic and most prominent in frontal cortical brain regions, and is accentuated by smoking. Overall, these results indicate that synaptic pathways-rather than the complement system-are the driving force conferring SCZ risk.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / pathology*
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Female
  • Gene Expression
  • Gene Regulatory Networks / genetics*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Schizophrenia / genetics*
  • Schizophrenia / pathology*
  • Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Synapses / pathology*

Grant support