Bi-allelic variants in the ESAM tight-junction gene cause a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with fetal intracranial hemorrhage

Am J Hum Genet. 2023 Apr 6;110(4):681-690. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2023.03.005. Epub 2023 Mar 29.


The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is an essential gatekeeper for the central nervous system and incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) is higher in infants with a history of intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH). We discovered a rare disease trait in thirteen individuals, including four fetuses, from eight unrelated families associated with homozygous loss-of-function variant alleles of ESAM which encodes an endothelial cell adhesion molecule. The c.115del (p.Arg39Glyfs33) variant, identified in six individuals from four independent families of Southeastern Anatolia, severely impaired the in vitro tubulogenic process of endothelial colony-forming cells, recapitulating previous evidence in null mice, and caused lack of ESAM expression in the capillary endothelial cells of damaged brain. Affected individuals with bi-allelic ESAM variants showed profound global developmental delay/unspecified intellectual disability, epilepsy, absent or severely delayed speech, varying degrees of spasticity, ventriculomegaly, and ICH/cerebral calcifications, the latter being also observed in the fetuses. Phenotypic traits observed in individuals with bi-allelic ESAM variants overlap very closely with other known conditions characterized by endothelial dysfunction due to mutation of genes encoding tight junction molecules. Our findings emphasize the role of brain endothelial dysfunction in NDDs and contribute to the expansion of an emerging group of diseases that we propose to rename as "tightjunctionopathies."

Keywords: ESAM; blood-brain barrier; epilepsy; exome sequencing; global developmental delay; intellectual disability; intracranial hemorrhage; neurodevelopmental disorders; pregnancy loss; retinopathy; tight junctions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Animals
  • Brain Diseases* / genetics
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules* / genetics
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Intracranial Hemorrhages / genetics
  • Mice
  • Nervous System Malformations* / genetics
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders* / genetics
  • Tight Junctions / genetics


  • Cell Adhesion Molecules
  • Esam protein, mouse
  • ESAM protein, human