The BS variant of C4 protects against age-related loss of white matter microstructural integrity

Brain. 2022 Mar 29;145(1):295-304. doi: 10.1093/brain/awab261.


Age-related loss of white matter microstructural integrity is a major determinant of cognitive decline, dementia and gait disorders. However, the mechanisms and molecular pathways that contribute to this loss of integrity remain elusive. We performed a genome-wide association study of white matter microstructural integrity as quantified by diffusion MRI metrics (mean diffusivity and fractional anisotropy) in up to 31 128 individuals from UK Biobank (age 45-81 years) based on a two degrees of freedom (2df) test of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and SNP × Age effects. We identified 18 loci that were associated at genome-wide significance with either mean diffusivity (n = 16) or fractional anisotropy (n = 6). Among the top loci was a region on chromosome 6 encoding the human major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Variants in the MHC region were strongly associated with both mean diffusivity [best SNP: 6:28866209_TTTTG_T, beta (standard error, SE) = -0.069 (0.009); 2df P = 6.5 × 10-15] and fractional anisotropy [best SNP: rs3129787, beta (SE) = -0.056 (0.008); 2df P = 3.5 × 10-12]. Of the imputed human leukocyte antigen (HLA) alleles and complement component 4 (C4) structural haplotype variants in the human MHC, the strongest association was with the C4-BS variant [for mean diffusivity: beta (SE) = -0.070 (0.010); P = 2.7 × 10-11; for fractional anisotropy: beta (SE) = -0.054 (0.011); P = 1.6 × 10-7]. After conditioning on C4-BS no associations with HLA alleles remained significant. The protective influence of C4-BS was stronger in older participants [age ≥ 65; interaction P = 0.0019 (mean diffusivity), P = 0.015 (fractional anisotropy)] and in participants without a history of smoking [interaction P = 0.00093 (mean diffusivity), P = 0.021 (fractional anisotropy)]. Taken together, our findings demonstrate a role of the complement system and of gene-environment interactions in age-related loss of white matter microstructural integrity.

Keywords: complement; genetics; white matter microstructure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anisotropy
  • Complement C4 / metabolism*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • White Matter* / diagnostic imaging


  • Complement C4