Upregulation of functional network connectivity in the presence of structural degeneration is seen in the premanifest stages of Huntington's disease (preHD) 10-15 years from clinical diagnosis. However, whether widespread network connectivity changes are seen in gene carriers much further from onset has yet to be explored. We characterized functional network connectivity throughout the brain and related it to a measure of disease pathology burden (CSF neurofilament light, NfL) and measures of structural connectivity in asymptomatic gene carriers, on average 24 years from onset. We related these measurements to estimates of cortical and subcortical gene expression. We found no overall differences in functional (or structural) connectivity anywhere in the brain comparing control and preHD participants. However, increased functional connectivity, particularly between posterior cortical areas, correlated with increasing CSF NfL level in preHD participants. Using the Allen Human Brain Atlas and expression-weighted cell-type enrichment analysis, we demonstrated that this functional connectivity upregulation occurred in cortical regions associated with regional expression of genes specific to neuronal cells. This relationship was validated using single-nucleus RNAseq data from post-mortem Huntington's disease and control brains showing enrichment of neuronal-specific genes that are differentially expressed in Huntington's disease. Functional brain networks in asymptomatic preHD gene carriers very far from disease onset show evidence of upregulated connectivity correlating with increased disease burden. These changes occur among brain areas that show regional expression of genes specific to neuronal GABAergic and glutamatergic cells.
Keywords: Huntington’s disease; connectivity; gene expression; neurofilament light.
© The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Guarantors of Brain.