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Neurogenetics & Epigenetics

Understanding the role of genes in neurodegeneration and ageing
The neurogenetics and epigenetics group investigates the relationship between genetic changes and features of dementia and related disorders. We also examine lifestyle and epigenetic factors in these diseases.

About our research

Our team examines the genetic and epigenetic factors in neurodegenerative diseases. Our research involves the study of variants in specific genes that have been implicated in sporadic and heritable forms of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

We work closely with other members of the ForeFront Ageing and Neurodegeneration team, using bioinformatics and next-generation sequencing to identify and investigate the role of genetic mutations in patients with neurodegenerative disorders. We focus on understanding how these mutations cause or increase the risk of disease so that we can work towards better treatment strategies.

Epigenetics involves the study of other influences on gene expression that are not caused by a change in an individual’s genetic code. These effects, however, can still have an impact on whether a gene is switched on or off and thus, are critically important for many normal cellular processes. Certain epigenetic changes have also been implicated in a variety of diseases.

Our epigenetics research is focused on examining the effects of certain lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and other modifiable risk factors on the expression of particular genes implicated in dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders.

By better understanding the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms involved in neurodegenerative diseases, we hope to reverse the effects through preventative lifestyle changes and/or targeted treatment strategies.

Our current projects

We performed a detailed neuropathological and genetic analysis on a large European Australian family (Aus-12) with autosomal dominant inheritance of FTD and/or MND. Our project involves investigating how our dementia-causing mutation gives rise to neurodegeneration as opposed to cancer. In particular, we will create sophisticated cellular and animal models to understand how the mutant form of the protein alters fundamental biological processes.

Individuals living to and beyond 95 years of age are exemplars of successful, healthy ageing. We have recently shown that certain epigenetic clock models predict that the ‘biological’ age of a cohort of Sydney centenarians are younger than their chronological age. We are now trying to understand what this means in terms of the centenarians being protected against neurodegenerative diseases and whether the expression of disease genes were switched off in these individuals by epigenetic means.

The team has successfully collected multiple biological samples from dementia patients and ‘at risk’ individuals over a number of years. We are now examining their genes, as well as any epigenetic modifications in their blood cells, for genetic variants or differentially methylation regions, that are predictive of their disease type, onset and progression. This will have implications for earlier and more accurate diagnosis of dementia, as well as improving our understanding of the underlying biological process that leads to disease.

Cell-free DNA (cfDNA) derived from brain tissue has been identified within the peripheral blood of patients diagnosed with neurological diseases, revealing the presence of unique biomarker of brain-cell death within the bloodstram. Using the distinct DNA methylation signatures of brain-cell types and brain-regions we are creating new molecular diagnostic methods using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) that can identify brain-cell and brain-regions specific neurodegeneration through the peripheral blood in neurodegenerative patients.

Key publications

Numerous families exhibiting both frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) have been described, and although many of these have been shown to harbour a repeat expansion in C9ORF72, several C9ORF72-negative FTD-ALS families remain. We performed neuropathological and genetic analysis of a large European Australian kindred (Aus-12) with autosomal dominant inheritance of dementia and/or ALS. Affected Aus-12 members developed either ALS or dementia; some of those with dementia also had ALS and/or extrapyramidal features. Neuropathology was most consistent with frontotemporal lobar degeneration with type B TDP pathology, but with additional phosphorylated tau pathology consistent with corticobasal degeneration. Aus-12 DNA samples were negative for mutations in all known dementia and ALS genes, including C9ORF72 and FUS. Genome-wide linkage analysis provided highly suggestive evidence (maximum multipoint LOD score of 2.9) of a locus on chromosome 16p12.1-16q12.2. Affected individuals shared a chromosome 16 haplotype flanked by D16S3103 and D16S489, spanning 37.9 Mb, with a smaller suggestive disease haplotype spanning 24.4 Mb defined by recombination in an elderly unaffected individual. Importantly, this smaller region does not overlap with FUS. Whole-exome sequencing identified four variants present in the maximal critical region that segregate with disease. Linkage analysis incorporating these variants generated a maximum multipoint LOD score of 3.0. These results support the identification of a locus on chromosome 16p12.1-16q12.2 responsible for an unusual cluster of neurodegenerative phenotypes. This region overlaps with a separate locus on 16q12.1-q12.2 reported in an independent ALS family, indicating that this region may harbour a second major locus for FTD-ALS.

Studies investigating the pathogenic role of the microtubule associated protein tau (MAPT) gene in Parkinson's disease (PD) have indicated that DNA methylation of the promoter region is aberrant in disease, leading to dysregulated MAPT expression. We examined two potential regulators of MAPT gene expression in respect to PD, a promoter-associated long non-coding RNA MAPT-AS1, and DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), enzymes responsible for new and maintenance of DNA methylation. We assessed the relationship between expression levels of MAPT and the candidate MAPT-AS1, DNMT1, DNMT3A and DNMT3B transcripts in four brain regions with varying degrees of cell loss and pathology (putamen, anterior cingulate cortex, visual cortex and cerebellum) in N = 10 PD and N = 10 controls. We found a significant decrease in MAPT-AS1 expression in PD (p = 7.154 x 10-6). The transcript levels of both MAPT-AS1 (p = 2.569 x 10-4) and DNMT1 (p = 0.001) correlated with those of MAPT across the four brain regions, but not with each other. Overexpression of MAPT-AS1 decreased MAPT promoter activity by ∼2.2 to 4.3 fold in an in vitro luciferase assay performed in two cell lines (p ≤ 2.678 x 10-4). Knock-down expression of MAPT-AS1 led to a 1.3 to 6.3 fold increase in methylation of the endogenous MAPT promoter (p ≤ 0.011) and a 1.2 to 1.5 fold increased expression of the 4-repeat MAPT isoform transcript (p ≤ 0.013). In conclusion, MAPT-AS1 and DNMT1 have been identified as potential epigenetic regulators of MAPT expression in PD across four different brain regions. Our data also suggest that increased MAPT expression could be associated with disease state, but not with PD neuropathology severity.