Modifier genes in Dravet Syndrome: where to look and how to find them

Converging thoughts. During late 2013, I had several unrelated discussions about the possible role of genetic modifiers of SCN1A in Dravet Syndrome. To some extent, SCN1A is a paradox. One the one hand, the connection between Dravet Syndrome and SCN1A is one of the clearest connections between gene and disease that we see in genetic epilepsies. On the other hand, we see a remarkable phenotypic heterogeneity in families, and some presumably pathogenic SCN1A variants can also be identified in unaffected control individuals. This leaves us with the question whether there are genetic modifiers in Dravet Syndrome that might help provide some insight into additional mechanisms of disease. This post is a collection of 10 individual thoughts that emerged during the discussions last year. Continue reading

2B or not 2B – mutations in GRIN2B and Infantile Spasms

Year of the glutamate receptor. A few months ago we wrote a post about the triplet of Nature Genetics publications that established GRIN2A mutations as a cause of disorders within the epilepsy aphasia spectrum. GRIN2A codes for the NR2A subunit of the NMDA receptor, one of the most prominent neurotransmitter receptors in the Central Nervous System. Now, a recent paper in the Annals of Neurology reports mutations in the GRIN2B subunit as a cause of Infantile Spasms. Interestingly, the functional consequences of these mutations are completely different from GRIN2A-related epilepsies. Continue reading

Copy number variations and the forgotten epilepsy phenotypes

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

Infantile Spasms/Lennox-Gastaut genetics goes transatlantic

Joining forces. The EuroEPINOMICS-RES consortium and Epi4K/EPGP are currently joining forces for genetic studies on epileptic encephalopathies. A first collaborative study focuses on de novo mutations in Infantile Spasms and Lennox-Gastaut-Syndrome. In the last two years, after decades of disappointment, we have finally managed to accomplish a breakthrough in understanding the genetic basis of epileptic encephalopathies. The method of trio-based exome sequencing works amazingly well to identify the genetic cause, and the field currently has the crucial momentum to reach the next level of research. Let’s briefly review why we need international collaborations to disentangle the genetic architecture of the epileptic encephalopathies. Continue reading

SHANK3, epilepsy, and the excitatory/inhibitory imbalance

Postsynaptic. SHANK proteins are elements of the postsynaptic density, linking synaptic transmission with the cytoskeleton. Deletions in SHANK2 and SHANK3 are known genetic risk factors for a broad range of neurodevelopmental disorders. The role of the reciprocal duplications, however, has remained unclear. In recent paper in Nature, a novel mouse model expressing a SHANK3 transgene is investigated. The results of a mere 1.5 fold overexpression of the protein are dramatic, hinting at unanticipated mechanisms that regulate the balance between excitation and inhibition.  Continue reading

Epigenetic signatures – profiling the epilepsies beyond genetics

What is epigenetics? In a single idea: the molecular memory of a cell. The system stores information of previously external (e.g. environmental) or internal (e.g. developmental) stimuli, learns from this experience and responds. A collection of specific tags tells genes whether to be ON or OFF. Hardcore epigeneticists claim that an epigenetic tag should be meiotically and/or mitotically heritable, self-perpetuating, and reversible. DNA methylation is the mechanism coming closest to this ideal. A more liberal definition not focusing on heritability refers to any structural adaptation of the chromatin template that regulates gene expression. This would also include posttranslational histone tail modifications, incorporation of histone variants, chromatin remodeling processes, and action of non-coding RNAs. The large variety, flexibility, interdependence and potential synergistic effects of epigenetic mechanisms could provide the molecular basis for any phenotypic variation in physiological and pathological conditions. In epilepsy research this is especially interesting with regard to the stimulus-driven activity and connectivity of post-mitotic neurons in the adult brain. We set out to study methylation for the most common form of epilepsy in adults. Continue reading

“Dark social” or “Who is afraid of email?”

Heathrow. Dark social? Threat? I’ll get back to that. I am writing this wrap-up post for the SpotOn 2013 meeting overlooking the British Airways planes on their way to take-off. In the last two days, we caught a glimpse of what online science communication is about. On Saturday, we had our own session #solo13blogs on using blogs for peer-to-peer science communication. As a science communication newbie, I am happy that our session was well received and stimulated quite some discussion. I have taken away three things from this meeting – a new understanding of our readership, an appreciation for Open Access and data sharing, and finally, a fear of the destructive power of dark social that also applies to epilepsy genetics research. But first things first. Continue reading

An inconvenient truth – segregation of monogenic variants in small families

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

Navigating the epilepsiome – live from Tübingen

2D. I am writing this post during our EuroEPINOMICS meeting in Tübingen listening to presentation from CoGIE, the EuroEPINOMICS project working on IGE/GGE and Rolandic Epilepsies and RES, the project on rare epilepsies. At some point during the afternoon, I made my selection for the best graph during the presentations today – an overview of the conservation space of epilepsy genes. Continue reading

CHD2 encephalopathy as a novel Dravet-like epilepsy syndrome

Negative for SCN1A. Today the first major paper by the EuroEPINOMICS-RES consortium was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics online. As you might recall from some of our previous posts, RES has worked on gene identification in patients with Dravet Syndrome negative for SCN1A using trio exome sequencing. A significant fraction of patients turned out to be positive for SCN1A with mutations initially missed using conventional sequencing techniques. However, there was also a second gene that we discovered in an initial cohort of patients with SCN1A-negative Dravet Syndrome. This gene was CHD2.  While working on the functional studies in zebrafish, CHD2 was also discovered as a novel gene for epileptic encephalopathies by both Carvill and collaborators and the Epi4K consortium. These parallel discoveries clearly highlight the relevance of this gene in human epilepsy and suggest that CHD2 mutations might be more common than mutations in many of the other candidate genes discovered in the last 12 months. In addition, when looking closer, the phenotype of the patients was not exactly Dravet Syndrome, but might represent a novel fever-related epileptic encephalopathy. Continue reading