Edinburgh Imaging

PhD projects 2012 004

Genetic determinants of white matter integrity in bipolar disorder.


Bipolar disorder is a heritable psychiatric disorder, and several of the genes associated with bipolar disorder and related psychotic disorders are involved in the development and maintenance of white matter in the brain. Patients with bipolar disorder have an increased incidence of white matter hyper-intensities, and quantitative brain imaging studies collectively indicate subtle decreases in white matter density and integrity in bipolar patients. This suggests that genetic vulnerability to psychosis may manifest itself as reduced white matter integrity, and that white matter integrity is an endophenotype of bipolar disorder.

This thesis comprises a series of studies designed to test the role of white matter in genetic risk to bipolar disorder by analysis of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data in the Bipolar Family Study. Various established analysis methods for DTI, including whole-brain voxel-based statistics, tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS) and probabilistic neighbourhood tractography, were applied with fractional anisotropy (FA) as the outcome measure. Widespread but subtle white matter integrity reductions were found in unaffected relatives of patients with bipolar disorder, whilst more localised reductions were associated with cyclothymic temperament. Next, the relation of white matter to four of the most prominent psychosis candidate genes, NRG1, ErbB4, DISC1 and ZNF804A, was investigated. A core haplotype in NRG1, and three of the four key single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) within it, showed an association with FA in the anterior thalamic radiations and the uncinate fasciculi. For the three SNPs considered in ErbB4, results were inconclusive, but this was consistent with the background literature. Most notable however, was a clear association of a non-synonymous DISC1 SNP, Ser704Cys, with FA extending over most of the white matter in the TBSS and voxel-based analyses. Finally, FA was not associated with a genome-wide supported risk SNP in ZNF804A, a finding which could not be attributed to a lack of statistical power, and which contradicts a strong, but previously untested hypothesis.

Whilst the above results need corroboration from independent studies, other studies are needed to address the cellular and molecular basis of these findings. Overall, this work provides strong support for the role of white matter integrity in genetic vulnerability to bipolar disorder and the wider psychosis spectrum and encourages its future use as an endophenotype.

  • Bipolar disorder
  • White matter
  • Diffusion tensor imaging
  • Genetic risk
  • Emma Sprooten
  • PhD
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