Inflammation and brain structure in schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders: A Mendelian randomization study

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Importance: Previous in vitro and postmortem research suggests that inflammation may lead to structural brain changes via activation of microglia and/or astrocytic dysfunction in a range of neuropsychiatric disorders. Objective: To investigate the relationship between inflammation and changes in brain structures in vivo and to explore a transcriptome-driven functional basis with relevance to mental illness. Design, Setting, and Participants: This study used multistage linked analyses, including mendelian randomization (MR), gene expression correlation, and connectivity analyses. A total of 20688 participants in the UK Biobank, which includes clinical, genomic, and neuroimaging data, and 6 postmortem brains from neurotypical individuals in the Allen Human Brain Atlas (AHBA), including RNA microarray data. Data were extracted in February 2021 and analyzed between March and October 2021. Exposures: Genetic variants regulating levels and activity of circulating interleukin 1 (IL-1), IL-2, IL-6, C-reactive protein (CRP), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were used as exposures in MR analyses. Main Outcomes and Measures: Brain imaging measures, including gray matter volume (GMV) and cortical thickness (CT), were used as outcomes. Associations were considered significant at a multiple testing-corrected threshold of P < 1.1 × 10-4. Differential gene expression in AHBA data was modeled in brain regions mapped to areas significant in MR analyses; genes were tested for biological and disease overrepresentation in annotation databases and for connectivity in protein-protein interaction networks. Results: Of 20688 participants in the UK Biobank sample, 10828 (52.3%) were female, and the mean (SD) age was 55.5 (7.5) years. In the UK Biobank sample, genetically predicted levels of IL-6 were associated with GMV in the middle temporal cortex (z score, 5.76; P = 8.39 × 10-9), inferior temporal (z score, 3.38; P = 7.20 × 10-5), fusiform (z score, 4.70; P = 2.60 × 10-7), and frontal (z score, -3.59; P = 3.30 × 10-5) cortex together with CT in the superior frontal region (z score, -5.11; P = 3.22 × 10-7). No significant associations were found for IL-1, IL-2, CRP, or BDNF after correction for multiple comparison. In the AHBA sample, 5 of 6 participants (83%) were male, and the mean (SD) age was 42.5 (13.4) years. Brain-wide coexpression analysis showed a highly interconnected network of genes preferentially expressed in the middle temporal gyrus (MTG), which further formed a highly connected protein-protein interaction network with IL-6 (enrichment test of expected vs observed network given the prevalence and degree of interactions in the STRING database: 43 nodes/30 edges observed vs 8 edges expected; mean node degree, 1.4; genome-wide significance, P = 4.54 × 10-9). MTG differentially expressed genes that were functionally enriched for biological processes in schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and epilepsy. Conclusions and Relevance: In this study, genetically determined IL-6 was associated with brain structure and potentially affects areas implicated in developmental neuropsychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and autism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalJAMA psychiatry
Issue number5
Early online date30 Mar 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding information: This study was supported by grant UKRI MR/S037675/1 from the MRC Psychosis Immune Mechanism Stratified Medicine Study (PIMS). Dr Khandaker acknowledges further funding support from the Wellcome Trust (grant 201486/Z/16/Z), the MQ: Transforming Mental Health (grant MQDS17/40), and the Medical Research Council (grants MC_PC_17213 and MR/W014416/1). Dr Burgess is supported by a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship jointly funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society (grant 204623/Z/16/Z) and the National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre (grant BRC-1215-20014). Drs Gkoutos, Karwath, Barsky, and Williams acknowledge support from the Medical Research Council Health Data Research UK (grant HDRUK/CFC/01).


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