Complexity. Structural genomic variants or copy number variations (CNV) are known genetic risk factors for various epilepsy syndromes. In fact, CNVs might represent the single most studied type of genetic alterations across a very broad range of epilepsy syndromes. There is, however, a group of patients that is usually not investigated in genetic studies: patients with presumable lesional epilepsies or questionable findings on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Many of these epilepsies are usually thought to be secondary to the identified lesion, and genetic risk factors are not considered. In a recent study in the European Journal of Human Genetics last week, we investigated the role of CNVs in a cohort of patients with complex epilepsy phenotypes that were not easily classified into existing categories. Many of patients included had definite or questionable findings on MRI. The results of our study made us wonder whether the boundary between lesional and genetic epilepsies needs to redrawn. Continue reading
Variations on Copy Numbers. In the third issue of our series on the papers of the week I will focus on the detection and annotation of the most common form of structural variation encountered in genomes. Deletions, duplications and inversions are frequent events, which are surprisingly hard to deal with using sequencing-based tools. Hence, this is an area of active development.
The treatment options for epilepsy must undoubtedly be improved. More than 20 antiepileptic drugs are licensed but in 30% of patients seizures are not controlled, despite treatment with a number of anti epileptic drugs and the response to medication is difficult to predict. Antiepileptic medications can cause severe adverse reactions and increase the risk of fetal malformations in women taking them during pregnancy. The differences in drug response and the occurrence of rare adverse reactions are believed to be caused by variants in the genetic makeup of individuals. Knowledge of these variants would help us to predict drug response and adverse drug reactions. This personalized treatment would help us to select medications for each individual.
Climate change. In the era of exome and genome sequencing, it might be worthwhile revisiting the merit of family studies in epilepsy research. Seizure disorders are known to have a highly diverse genetic architecture. When singleton studies identify a single, unique gene finding, this discovery usually does not provide much information about the potential causal role of the variant given the high degree of genomic noise. In contrast, family studies are usually considered more robust, as segregation of variants can be traced. Here is the inconvenient truth: unless the family is very large, segregation of possibly monogenic variants adds little information given the vast amount of variants present in our genomes. Continue reading
Variability. It has been rumored for quite some time, but only now is solid evidence present to show this phenomenon: the high degree of genomic diversity of human neurons. In a recent paper in Science, the genomic diversity among frontal brain neurons is explored on a cell-by-cell basis. The results are breathtaking: up to 40% of frontal cortex neurons have altered genomic material affected by large deletions or duplications. This study provides the linchpin for a plethora of new investigations aiming to understand the impact of this phenomenon in health and disease. Continue reading
Triad. There are three microdeletions in particular that increase the risk for the Idiopathic/Genetic Generalized Epilepsies (IGE/GGE). This triad includes microdeletions at 15q13.3, 16p13.11 and 15q11.2, which are hotspot deletions arising from the particular architecture of the human genome. While the association of these microdeletions with epilepsy and other neurodevelopmental disorders including autism, intellectual disability and schizophrenia is well established, the core phenotype of these variants remains elusive, including the question whether such a core phenotype actually exists. In a recent paper in Neurology, Mullen and collaborators zoom in on a possible core phenotype of these microdeletions. The authors investigate a phenotype in which these microdeletions are particularly enriched: generalized epilepsy with intellectual disability. Continue reading
GWAS. Genome-wide association studies investigate the association of common genetic variants with disease in large patient samples. While this approach has been very successful in many other diseases, the results in epilepsy research have been less convincing. Given the complexity of epilepsy phenotypes, selection of the right epilepsy phenotype has been an ongoing debate. Now, a recent study in Brain finds an intronic variant of the SCN1A gene that is associated with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE), the most common epilepsy in man. Interestingly, the association with SCN1A seems to be specific for only a particular subtype of focal epilepsies. Continue reading
Compound unknown. GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the Central Nervous System and its effect is mediated through GABA receptors. Benzodiazepines are compounds that reinforce the action of GABA in the brain, which gives them antiepileptic properties. Consequently, benzodiazepines are one of the most common groups of antiepileptic drugs used to interrupt acute epileptic seizures. Interestingly, benzodiazepines have their own binding site on the GABA receptor, suggesting that they might actually mimic the effect of another, yet unknown substance that is present in the brain. The identity of this mysterious substance, the endogenous benzodiazepine or endozepine, has been one the romantic mysteries of neuroscience. Now, a recent paper in Neuron provides strong evidence that products of the DBI gene are the long-sought endozepine. Continue reading
On stage. I just got back from Brussels where I had to defend my ERC Starting Grant in front of the Neuroscience Panel. The European Research Counsil (ERC) Starting Grants are prestigious excellence grants and I was lucky enough to be invited for the famous second round. This second round requires the applicants to go to Brussels in order to give a 10-15 min presentation and defend the application on the 24th floor of the Covent Garden building. It provides a wonderful view of the city, but nobody really bothered taking this in. Let’s use the opportunity to quickly discuss grants, funding and the future of epilepsy genetics. Continue reading
Man is built to seize. When Hughlings Jackson made this famous comment pertaining to the inherent hyperexcitability of the human brain in response to a wide range of different stimuli, he probably didn’t anticipate the mechanisms of splicing regulation. Our CNS is actively protected from hyperexcitability through directed splicing of ion channel mRNA. Now, a recent study in Epilepsia finds that these mechanisms may be dysfunctional in human epilepsy. Continue reading