Paradigm shifts in epilepsy genetics – continuing the ILAE genetic literacy series

Genetic literacy. Sometimes important milestones don’t feel like much when you eventually reach them. Last Thursday, I woke up sleep-deprived after working on a grant all night and found an NCBI update in my mailbox. Primer Part 2 of the genetic literacy series of ILAE Genetics Commission was now published in Epilepsia and available on PubMed. Finally, both the introductory primers of the genetic literacy series are out – Part 1 dealing with the building blocks including general concepts of epilepsy genetics and epidemiology and now Part 2 about the paradigm shifts that were introduced with the advent of massive parallel sequencing. Both publications were revised and re-written over and over again to fit the overall didactic mission of the literacy series, an effort that takes approximately 10x as long as writing a typical review. But finally, as of May 10, 2018, both Primers are now in their final shape, published and open access to the international epilepsy community. And here is just a quick overview of what this paradigm shift is really about. Continue reading

Not only de novo after all: the role of parental mosaicism in genetic epilepsies

Conventional wisdom. Trio whole exome sequencing has been successful over the last five years in identifying underlying genetic etiologies in nearly 50% of patients with epileptic encephalopathies, which is largely owing to the genetic architecture of these conditions. The vast majority of these genetic epilepsies are caused by apparent de novo variants that are present in the patient but not in the mother or father. The conventional wisdom is that the recurrence risk in future pregnancies for parents of an affected child is low to non-existent and traditionally we have quoted a ~1% recurrence risk for future pregnancies. However, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine turns this conventional wisdom on its head, identifying detectable somatic mosaicism in approximately 10% of parents tested, which has implications for how we counsel families of children with epileptic encephalopathies – and potentially other genetic conditions due to de novo variants as well. Continue reading

Expanding our horizons: Benign Adult Familial Myoclonic Epilepsy and intronic SAMD12 repeat expansions

Unravelling the BAFME mystery. The mystery surrounding Benign Adult Familial Myoclonic Epilepsy (BAFME) – also known as Familial Adult Myoclonic Epilepsy (FAME) or Familial Cortical Myoclonic Tremor and Epilepsy (FCMTE) – has persisted for years. BAFME is an autosomal dominant neurological disorder characterized by adult onset of myoclonic/cortical tremor and infrequent seizures. The clinical course is typically considered to be benign. Linkage studies have shown linkage to several regions including 8q24, 2p11.1-q12.2, 3q26.32-q28, and 5p15. A recent publication identified a variant in CTNND2 segregating with disease in a Dutch family with BAFME3, although it remains to be determined how broadly applicable CTNND2 variants are in other individuals with BAFME. Now in an elegant set of experiments by Ishiura and colleagues, a significant proportion of BAFME appears to be solved and is due to expansions of pentanucleotide intronic sequences in SAMD12.

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The mitochondrial box cutter – an unexpected role for PMPCB in neurodegeneration

MPP. Mitochondria are indispensable for cellular energy production and require constant protein import, as most mitochondrial genes are encoded in the nucleus. In order for proper targeting, mitochondrial proteins have a specific presequence, which is removed once a protein has found its way into the mitochondria. This function is accomplished by the mitochondrial processing peptidase MPP, which is encoded by the PMPCA and PMPCB genes. In a recent publication in the American Journal of Human Genetics, we identified PMPCB as a novel gene for a complex neurodegenerative condition in childhood and discovered a new disease mechanism for neurological disorders. However, epileptic encephalopathy that initially led to the inclusion of our initial RES study was only one extreme of an unusual disease spectrum.  Continue reading

Finding the missing sodium channel – SCN3A in epileptic encephalopathy

Sodium channel. Voltage-gated channels for sodium ions are a crucial component of helping neurons depolarize and repolarize in a way that enables generation of action potentials. However, in order to function properly, voltage-gated ion channels co-exist in a fragile balance, and genetic alterations leading to functional changes in these channels are known causes of disease. SCN1A, SCN2A, and SCN8A have been implicated as causes for human epilepsy. However, SCN3A encoding the Nav1.3 channel, one of the most obvious candidates, could not be linked to disease so far. In a recent publication, we were able identify disease-causing mutations in this major neuronal ion channel. Interestingly, patients with an early onset and the most severe presentation had a prominent gain-of-function effect that responded to known antiepileptic medications. Continue reading

NMDA receptors and brain malformations: GRIN1-associated polymicrogyria

Ion channels and brain malformations. When the “channelopathy” concept first emerged – the idea that dysfunction of neuronal ion channels leads to neurological disease including epilepsy – it seemed implausible that such dysfunction could lead to malformations of cortical development. However, recent research has suggested that ion channel dysfunction may indeed be linked with brain malformations. In 2017, we saw convincing evidence that germline de novo variants in GRIN2B can cause malformations of cortical development. Some suggestive, but less conclusive, evidence has also linked SCN1A and SCN2A to brain malformations. Now Fry and collaborators demonstrate that de novo pathogenic variants in GRIN1 can also cause significant polymicrogyria, expanding the phenotypic spectrum of GRIN1-related disorders. As a disclaimer, I am also a co-author on the publication by Fry and collaborators. Continue reading

PCDH19-related epilepsy: understanding cellular interference

Protocadherins. PCDH19-related epilepsy is the second most common genetic epilepsy, behind Dravet syndrome. PCDH19-related epilepsies display the unusual X-linked inheritance pattern in which heterozygous females are affected but hemizygous males are unaffected. Similarly, somatic mosaic males have also been reported. PCDH19 encodes protocadherin 19, a calcium-dependent cell-cell adhesion molecule that is highly expressed in the central nervous system. The long-hypothesized pathomechanism has been cellular interference, although experimental support has so far been lacking. Now, Pederick and collaborators provide evidence that supports the cellular interference mechanism in PCDH19-related epilepsies, bringing us closer to understanding the biology of this unusual genetic epilepsy. Continue reading

SLC6A1 – a generalized epilepsy phenotype emerging

GAT1. When we first identified SLC6A1 in 2015, we were surprised that a significant proportion of patients with disease-causing variants in this gene had a rare epilepsy phenotype referred to as Myoclonic Astatic Epilepsy (MAE). Typically, at the time of gene discovery, it is often unclear how far the phenotypic spectrum expands. In a recent publication in Epilepsia, we reviewed the phenotype of 34 patients with SCL6A1-related epilepsy. Surprisingly, in contrast to many other epilepsy genes that showed a broad and occasionally non-specific phenotypic range, the SLC6A1-related phenotype expands beyond MAE, but remains centered around generalized epilepsies with a predominance of absence seizures and atonic seizures. It is a gene that has started to write its own story. Continue reading

Epilepsy genetics in 2018 – Three things that will happen and three things that won’t

Bomb Cyclone. While the entire US East Cost was held hostage by a weather system that introduced us to new catchy meterological concepts such as bombogenesis, I hope that everybody is staying warm and safe. I wanted to wish all our readers a Happy 2018 and try to give an outlook of the New Year in epilepsy genetics.  Here are three things in epilepsy genetics that will happen in 2018 – and three things that won’t. Continue reading

AES 2017 – Making Sense of Genetic Data in Epilepsy

Controversies. While you are packing your bags for the 71st Annual Meeting of the American Epilepsy Society in Washington, D.C., we wanted to point out one agenda item that may be of interest for you. The AES agenda typically has many parallel sessions, so I wanted to make a plug for our Genetics Special Interest Group (SIG) on Friday, 12/1 at 1:30PM. The topic of our SIG is going to be “Making Sense of Genetic Data in Epilepsy – Consensus and Controversy in 2017”. In contrast to regular sessions and lectures, a SIG is meant to stimulate discussion between SIG members. Therefore, in parallel to previous years, we would like to invite the attendees to use the opportunity to discuss challenging cases within a dedicated AES Special Interest Group. Continue reading