This is it! With finishing my PhD I have become an “adult” member of the scientific community. I grew out of a bachelor in biochemistry on transfection methods in neuronal cell lines, a research semester in Canberra with focus on B-cell immunology and master into a PhD in epilepsy genomics. I was involved in the EPICURE IGE copy number projects and recently my work changed to the analysis of rare variants in RE and IGE in the EUROepinomics framework. During this time I was involved in the identification of variants in RBFOX genes and GRIN2A as well as other risk factors which are currently in review. I share my experience and thoughts and hope they help others who are about to or have just started their thesis. The aspects reflect my personal view and some are specific for graduation in disease genomics. 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
Genotype to phenotype. Recurrent microdeletions at various sites in the human genome are known risk factors for a broad range of neurodevelopmental disorders including epilepsy, autism, intellectual disability and schizophrenia. Despite the fact that the pathogenic role is well established, the mechanisms linking the microdeletion to the neurodevelopmental phenotype remain obscure. In contrast to monogenic disorders, various genes are included and functional studies are difficult. Now, a recent paper in Cell examines the role of a specific microRNA that is dysregulated in the 22q11.2 microdeletion. The results are surprising. Continue reading
A peculiar gene. There is one gene in the small world of epilepsy genetics that has always troubled me. A gene that has an unknown function and is not expressed in the postnatal brain, but is well established as one of the few genes for autosomal dominant Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME). This gene is EFHC1. Now, a recent paper in Epilepsia reports EFHC1 as a possible candidate gene in autosomal recessive epileptic encephalopathy with neonatal onset. The mystery surrounding this gene continues. Continue reading
Lights on and lights out. Staring spells, petits mals, pyknolepsy and absence seizures. The brief spells that occur in patients with epilepsy have riddled neurologists for centuries. This became clear to me when Zaid Afawi and myself saw an epilepsy family in the West Bank on Sunday. When are staring spells epileptic and what kind of seizures are they? For me, this was a good opportunity to read Lennox’s thoughts on this. Eventually, after a long day under the Middle Eastern sun, I fell asleep over the chapter on absence status. Continue reading
Pushing the reset button. The history of epilepsy genetics can broadly be distinguished into two major eras: the time before September 4th, 2012 and everything after this. September 4th, 2012 was the date that the first large genome-wide association study in IGE/GGE was published online in Human Molecular Genetics. Each of the >100 association studies in IGE listed in PubMed is now dated and needs to measure up against the current study, which will likely be remembered as the “EPICURE study”. The results of the EPICURE study are surprising and upset our conventional wisdom of what causes one of the most common forms of epilepsy. Continue reading
Crompton and colleagues recently published the clinical and genetic description of a large family with Familial Adult Myoclonic Epilepsy (FAME). This phenotype is particularly interesting since it provides some insight into how neurologists conceptualize twitches and jerks. It is also a good example that large families do not necessarily result in a narrow linkage region, particularly when centromeric regions are involved.
What is myoclonus? Despite usually mentioned in the context of epilepsy, most people are inherently familiar with myoclonus. Most of us “twitch” when we fall asleep and sometimes experience this twitch as part of a dream. These episodes are entirely normal and are called hypnic jerks, but they give people a good idea of what a sudden, brief, shocklike, involuntary movement caused by muscular contraction or inhibition would feel like. Myoclonus in the setting of epilepsy is usually mentioned as part of a Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME) or Progressive Myoclonus Epilepsy (PME). Please note that both epilepsies use different endings to describe the twitch (“-us” vs. “–ic”). This is mainly convention. Basically, myoclonus is a brief shock-like twitch, which can affect almost every part of the body and can be due to dysfunctions in various regions in the Central Nervous System.
The neuroanatomy of twitching. A motor command from the cerebral cortex has to pass through several steps prior to execution. For example, the simple command of tapping a finger on the table surface is prepared by the cortex through several loops before being sent down your spine. Accordingly, myoclonus can arise from different parts in the brain. (1) The cortical myoclonus is due to a purely cortical source and can be seen in many forms of symptomatic myoclonus. (2) The cortico-subcortical myoclonus is due to feedback from the cortex to other brain areas. This is the myoclonus we see in patients with JME. Both variants may be seen on EEG since the cortex is involved. (3) The subcortical-supraspinal myoclonus is generated in the brain stem or below and is responsible for phenomena such as hyperekplexia or startle disease. Some forms of hyperekplexia, literally “exaggerated surprise”, are due to mutations in genes involved in glycinergic transmission and can be found in some isolated communities such as the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. (4) Finally, there is also spinal and peripheral myoclonus.
FAME – epilepsy or movement disorder? Familial Adult Myoclonic Epilepsy (FAME) is an enigmatic familial disorder with the triad of myoclonus, tremor and seizures. Several families have been described and two loci on 8q23.3-8q24.11 and 2p11.1-q212.2 for FAME have been established. The underlying genes are still unknown. Crompton and colleagues no describe a large six-generation family with FAME in Australia/New Zealand. The familial disease usually starts with tremor in early adulthood in the affected family members, even though a wide range of age of onset is observed. Interestingly, only a quarter of all affected family members had seizures, which is in contrast to previous studies. Therefore, FAME may actually be better characterized as a movement disorder with concomitant seizures rather than a familial epilepsy syndrome. The authors also point out the difficulties distinguishing FAME from the much more common essential tremor (ET). In particular, the well-described response to β-blockers seen in patients with ET can also be observed in some family members.
The genetics of FAME. Crossovers during meiosis usually lead to a progressive narrowing of the linkage interval in familial disorders. However, the lack of crossover events leads to very large linkage intervals even in very extended families. The family described by Crompton et al. links to the pericentromeric region of chromosome 2. Pericentromeric regions usually have a low frequency of crossover events, and this phenomenon has also delayed the identification of other familial epilepsies such as Benign Familial Infantile Seizures with mutations in PRRT2. The linkage region contains almost 100 genes and Figure 1 shows the “candidate gene landscape” in this region. While some genes clearly classify as top candidate genes, the majority of the genes in this region are unknown in the context of epilepsy. Therefore, identification of the FAME gene will be exciting and provide us with novel insight on how genetic alterations may produce combined neurological phenotypes.
When in epilepsy genetics, choose sides. When you (a young, motivated researcher) start working on epilepsy genetics, you have to make a basic decision. Option 1 is the decision to work on the genetics of rare epilepsies. Rare epilepsies, either monogenic families or epileptic encephalopathies are expected to have a strong genetic contribution. In the ideal situation, a gene can be identified if the family is sufficiently large or if you happen to pick the right phenotype. Option 2 involves genetic research in common epilepsies. In this case, you can claim to be working on the seizure disorders which represent more than 90% of patients. Identification of genetic risk factors in this group of patients undoubetedly has strong implications, be it the identification of risk factors for drug response, side effects or novel risk variants, which help you understand the underlying biology. However, few of these risk factors are known and large sample sizes are needed to create a sufficiently powered study. Interestingly, the distinction between these two options pretty much represent the differences between RES and CoGIE.
Why not Option 3? Whichever option you chose, it has apparent downsides. You either work on very rare diseases or exhaust yourselve with more genetic complexity than you can handle. There is, however, Option 3. And Option 3 is what led part of the EuroEPINOMICS blogging team (namely Ingo, Johanna and Sarah) to Marrakesh. Option 3 involves genetic studies in familial forms of common epilepsies, particularly autosomal recessive variants of common seizure disorders.
The paradox. For disorders such as Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME), we expect a complex genetic architecture on the population level with a wide range of genetic risk factors, a high degree of locus heterogeneity and phenotypic pleiotropy of risk variants. However, families have been reported, in which such common forms of seizure disorders are inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. For Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy, for example, several families have been reported with recessive inheritance. Furthermore, Salzmann and colleagues recently identified a mutation in the gene coding for Carboxypeptidase A6 in a recessive family with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Febrile Seizures. These families provide the ideal opportunity to identify genetic risk factors with strong effect, which would help us understand basic mechanism. The downside, however, is that these families are extremely rare. This, again, is where Marrakesh comes into play.
Genetic research in populations with a high degree of consanguinity. In several populations around the world, consanguineous marriages are frequent. Marriage within the family sometimes represents an important social factor. This constellation is seen in many Arab populations. Autosomal recessive disorders are relatively frequent in these populations and represent an important source of morbidity. Interestingly, highly consanguineous population do not have a significant increase in the frequency of common disorders, suggesting that the effect of recessive mutations occurs in a black-and-white fashion, i.e. these mutations cause severe monogenic disorders when present in a recessive state, but do not contribute strongly when heterozygous. Highly consanguineous population, therefore, lend themselves for gene discovery in recessive disorders. The frequency of these disorders is higher and identification of the underlying gene is highly important to the families and population for screening.
What is recessive JME? You might argue that recessive Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy does not exist and probably represents a form of Progressive Myoclonus Epilepsy (PME) which either present in a mild form or is not properly diagnosed. While it is difficult to argue against the presence of an atypical phenotype in the absence of genetic data, a long non-progressive course of a mild myoclonic epilepsy without ataxia or additional features is difficult to reconsile with PME. And PME genes are notoriously absent in cohorts of patients with JME. These disorders are simply distinct. Therefore, recessive JME holds the great promise to identify novel recessive genes for IGE/GGE that will undoubtely unravel novel mechanisms. From the top of my head, I would not know a single gene that, when absent in a homozygous state, might cause JME and the mechanisms to be identified hold great promise. The Morocco trip (supported by the International Bureau of the BMBF) has allowed us to already include some families into the EuroEPINOMICS project with more families to come.