Newborn MRI scans connect psychiatric risk genes + brain changes

MRI scans of newborns have revealed an association between differences in brain tissue volumes and common gene variants linked to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and autism, according to a study published Jan. 3 in Cerebral Cortex.

While previous studies have demonstrated associations between brain changes and psychiatric risk genes in adolescents and adults, the current study focused on determining whether these relationships arise early in development, according to Rebecca C. Knickmeyer, PhD, of the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine and colleagues.

"These results suggest that prenatal brain development may be a very important influence on psychiatric risk later in life," Knickmeyer said in a release.

A total of 272 infants were included in the study, all of whom underwent MRI scans at UNC Hospitals shortly after birth. The DNA of each infant was tested for common variations in the following seven genes that have been linked to brain structure in adults:

  • disrupted-in-schizophrenia-1 (DISC1);
  • catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT);
  • neuregulin 1 (NRG1);
  • apolipoprotein E (APOE);
  • estrogen receptor alpha (ESR1);
  • brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); and
  • glutamate decarboxylase 1 (GAD1).

Results showed that for some polymorphisms, such as variation in the APOE gene, brain changes in infants looked very similar to brain changes found in adults with the same variants. Variation in the APOE gene is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

"This could stimulate an exciting new line of research focused on preventing onset of illness through very early intervention in at-risk individuals,” said Knickmeyer.

Not every polymorphism included in the study, however, had the same similarities between infant and adult brain changes. Infants with the rs6675281 variant in the DISC1 gene did not exhibit such similarity with adults who had the same variant, indicating that some brain changes develop later in life, according to the researchers.

"It's fascinating that different variants in the same gene have such unique effects in terms of when they affect brain development," said Knickmeyer.