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Title: Functional genomics studies of human brain development and implications for autism spectrum disorder
Author: Ziats, Mark
ISNI:       0000 0004 5364 677X
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2014
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Human neurodevelopment requires the coordinated expression of thousands of genes, exquisitely regulated in both spatial and temporal dimensions, to achieve the proper specialization and inter-connectivity of brain regions. Consequently, the dysregulation of complex gene networks in the developing brain is believed to underlie many neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Autism has a significant genetic etiology, but there are hundreds of genes implicated, and their functions are heterogeneous and complex. Therefore, an understanding of shared molecular and cellular pathways underlying the development ASD has remained elusive, hampering attempts to develop common diagnostic biomarkers or treatments for this disorder. I hypothesized that analyzing functional genomics relationships among ASD candidate genes during normal human brain development would provide insight into common cellular and molecular pathways that are affected in autistic individuals, and may help elucidate how hundreds of diverse genes can all be linked to a single clinical phenotype. This thesis describes a coordinated set of bioinformatics experiments that first (i) assessed for gene expression and co-expression properties among ASD candidates and other non-coding RNAs during normal human brain development to discover potential shared mechanisms; and then (ii) directly assessed for changes in these pathways in autistic post-mortem brain tissue. The results demonstrated that when examined in the context of normal human brain gene expression during early development, autism candidate genes appear to be strongly related to the neurodevelopmental pathways of synaptogenesis, mitochondrial function, glial cytokine signaling, and transcription/translation regulation. Furthermore, the known sex bias in ASD prevalence appeared to relate to differences in gene expression between the developing brains of males and females. Follow up studies in autistic brain tissue confirmed that changes in mitochondrial gene expression networks, glial pathways, and gene expression regulatory mechanisms are all altered in the brains of autistic individuals. Together, these results show that the heterogeneous set of autism candidate genes are related to each other through shared transcriptional networks that funnel into common molecular mechanisms, and that these mechanisms are aberrant in autistic brains.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: autistic disorder ; gene expression ; non-coding RNA ; functional genomics ; human brain development