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New Mutations Mount as Fathers Age

27 August 2012. As a man ages, the chance that his children will carry new, spontaneously occurring mutations grows, according to a study published 23 August in Nature. Led by Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland, the study sequenced the entire genomes of 78 families consisting mainly of unaffected parents and their children with autism or schizophrenia. The study identified an average of 63 single-nucleotide changes per person that were not inherited from their parents, but arose “de novo,” likely in parental sperm or egg cells. More de novo mutations were found in people with older fathers than with younger fathers, with an effect size of about two mutations per year of a father’s age; a mother’s age did not have an influence.

The study offers an explanation for epidemiological studies that find older fathers are more likely to have children with schizophrenia (see SRF Current Hypothesis) or autism (Croen et al., 2007). Researchers suspect things go wrong at the level of sperm cells, which are made throughout a man’s life, unlike a woman’s egg cells. Each round of DNA replication prior to cell division could introduce copying errors. If these mutations accumulate in sperm cells with age, then the chances of disrupting a gene involved in either disorder would increase. In line with this idea of sperm as crucibles for mutation, a study published July 20 in Cell sequenced the genome within individual sperm cells from a single man, and found 25-36 point mutations in each cell (Wang et al., 2012).

Though previous studies reported a similar effect of a father’s age on de novo mutations in the protein-coding exome of people with autism (see SRF related news story), the extent to which the new findings explain the paternal age epidemiology is unclear. This will depend on how many schizophrenia or autism cases actually result from de novo mutations in the first place—though exome sequencing studies have reported an excess of de novo mutations in schizophrenia (see SRF related news story and SRF news story), these kinds of mutations turn up in healthy people, too. An alternative explanation for the epidemiology hinges on inherited mutations: fathers carrying disease-related mutations may show subclinical signs of schizophrenia, which could delay their married-with-kids stage of life. Last year, a study suggested that a father’s age at the birth of his first child—rather than the birth of the child who eventually develops schizophrenia—matters more (Petersen et al., 2011).

All in the family
First author Augustine Kong and colleagues sequenced the genomes of 44 people with autism, 21 with schizophrenia, 13 without a disorder, and both parents of each. Scanning the entire genome for nucleotide changes present in offspring but not in parents, the researchers identified 4,933 de novo mutations in total, with an average of 63 new mutations in each child in the family. With 2.63 billion base pairs effectively scanned, the researchers pegged the de novo mutation rate at 1.2 x 10-8 per nucleotide per generation, in line with other studies. Though this rate relies largely on data from autism and schizophrenia samples, it may not differ in healthy people.

For five of these families, three generations' worth of data were available because the offspring had children themselves. This allowed the researchers to trace which chromosome—mother’s or father’s—harbored the de novo mutation, thus clarifying where the trouble began. Identifying the de novo mutations that were then inherited by the third generation, the researchers looked for maternal or paternal markers nearby that originated from the first generation. This analysis pointed to the fathers, who contributed an average of 55 mutations to their child, whereas mothers added only 14. The number was substantially more variable in fathers than in mothers, too, leading the researchers to examine age as a factor in this variability.

The father effect
Considering the 4,933 de novo mutations from all the families, the researchers found that the number of mutations increased nearly linearly as the father’s age increased (p = 3.6 x 10-19). For example, children born when their dads were 20 years old carried around 40 mutations, whereas those born when their dads were 40 years old carried about 80. The father’s age could explain up to 97 percent of the variance in de novo mutation number, which seems to limit contributions by other factors, including the mother’s age. Though the mother’s age correlates with the father’s age (r = 0.83), removing the effect of the mother did not change the relationship between the father’s age and de novo mutations. This suggests the mother’s age matters less for point mutations, and more for larger genetic glitches like the extra chromosome found in Down’s syndrome.

The researchers noted some de novo mutations in interesting places. Seventy-three landed in protein-coding parts of genes, and, of interest to schizophrenia, one person with schizophrenia carried a protein-truncating mutation in neurexin. Neurexin is thought to help wire synapses together (see SRF related news story), and several studies have found small deletions within the gene in people with schizophrenia, autism, and other psychiatric disorders (Schaaf et al., 2012; see SRF related news story).

The authors suggest that the influence of a father’s age is so profound that it might not make sense to talk about a stable mutation rate across the genome, but instead to consider it a time-dependent variable. This malleability highlights how societal factors, like shifts in the age when people first become parents, can shape the genome, but whether this influences risk for schizophrenia or autism remains an interesting question.—Michele Solis.

Kong A, Frigge ML, Masson G, Besenbacher S, Sulem P, Magnusson G, Gudjonsson SA, Sigurdsson A, Jonasdottir A, Jonasdottir A, Wong WS, Sigurdsson G, Walters GB, Steinberg S, Helgason H, Thorleifsson G, Gudbjartsson DF, Helgason A, Magnusson OT, Thorsteinsdottir U, Stefansson K. Rate of de novo mutations and the importance of father's age to disease risk. Nature. 2012 Aug 22; 488: 471-475. Abstract

Comments on News and Primary Papers
Comment by:  Dolores Malaspina
Submitted 27 August 2012
Posted 27 August 2012

The new report by Kong et al. (2012) demonstrates that paternal age is likely to be an important source of mutations that are relevant for schizophrenia, as we earlier hypothesized (Malaspina, 2001). Kong et al. demonstrated that the diversity in human mutation rates for offspring is dominated by the paternal age at conception. Following our initial observation that advancing paternal age was substantially associated with an increasing risk for schizophrenia, explaining a quarter of the population's attributable risk for schizophrenia (Malaspina et al., 2001), many scientists found it difficult to accept that the father’s age could be a risk pathway for schizophrenia. By contrast, the hypothesis that paternal age explained the risk for achondroplastic dwarfism achieved far greater immediate acceptance over 20 years ago (i.e., Thompson et al., 1986). While these new findings will surely advance our understanding of many de novo neuropsychiatric conditions, they also substantiate biological versus psychosocial causation theories for severe neuropsychiatric conditions.


Malaspina D. Paternal factors and schizophrenia risk: de novo mutations and imprinting. Schizophr Bull . 2001 ; 27(3):379-93. Abstract

Malaspina D, Harlap S, Fennig S, Heiman D, Nahon D, Feldman D, Susser ES. Advancing paternal age and the risk of schizophrenia. Arch Gen Psychiatry . 2001 Apr ; 58(4):361-7. Abstract

Thompson JN Jr, Schaefer GB, Conley MC, Mascie-Taylor CG. Achondroplasia and parental age. N Engl J Med. 1986 Feb 20;314(8):521-2. Abstract

View all comments by Dolores MalaspinaComment by:  Patrick Sullivan, SRF Advisor
Submitted 27 August 2012
Posted 27 August 2012

Kong et al. sequenced 78 pedigree clusters (mostly parent-offspring trios) to around 30x coverage. After careful quality control, they identified an average of 63 new mutations per trio. These mutations were “de novo” in that they were absent in the parents but present in an offspring and assumed to have occurred during gametogenesis.

Intriguingly, more of these mutations occurred in older parents. The authors present several lines of evidence to implicate fathers rather than mothers, and estimated that there were about two extra de novo mutations per year of increase in paternal age. This conclusion is consistent with several of the exome sequencing papers published in Nature a few months ago.

Increased paternal age is an epidemiological risk factor for schizophrenia and autism, with relative risks on the order of two and five, respectively. This paper suggests a potential mechanism for the paternal age effect that might eventually prove to be relevant for some fraction of cases.

It is important to note that advanced paternal age is a risk factor, not a determining feature. Risk is increased, but not in a deterministic manner.

View all comments by Patrick SullivanComment by:  John McGrath, SRF Advisor
Submitted 28 August 2012
Posted 28 August 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

In 2001, Dolores Malaspina alerted the research community to the link between advanced paternal age and increased risk of schizophrenia—she suggested that this may be due to de novo mutations in the male germ line (Malaspina et al., 2001). The study BY Kong et al. provides compelling evidence in support of this hypothesis (Kong et al., 2012). A related paper in Nature Genetics also demonstrates an association between paternal age and changes in microsatellite properties across generations (Sun et al., 2012).

While the hypothesis that de novo mutations accumulate due to copy error mutations in the production of germ cells in older males is compelling, it is still possible (albeit unlikely) that this association may be due to unmeasured confounding. For example, older men might be exposed to more environmental toxins that accumulate over time and subsequently cause mutations in the offspring of older dads as a byproduct of the greater exposure. There is also the evidence from Denmark indicating that, when adjusted for age of first child, the association between paternal age and risk of schizophrenia fades out (Petersen et al., 2011). This finding suggests that selective factors may also operate (e.g., perhaps related to personality of schizotypal men, etc.).

However, animal experiments can provide useful clues to this puzzle (Foldi et al., 2011). Mouse models of advanced paternal age indicate that the offspring of older sires differ from control animals on behavior and brain structure (Smith et al., 2009; Foldi et al., 2010). Of particular relevance for the study by Kong et al., a mouse experiment found that the offspring of older sires were significantly more likely to have de novo copy number variants (Flatscher-Bader et al., 2011).

We now have convergent evidence from risk factor epidemiology, animal experiments, and genetic studies. The evidence supports an increased risk of schizophrenia in the offspring of older fathers, and points to age-related mutagenesis in the male germ cell. It is still not clear why these age-related events seem to differentially impact on neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., autism is also linked to paternal age). Perhaps neocortical development is less well "buffered" (compared to more phylogenetically ancient organs); thus, de novo mutations can more readily "decanalize" certain features of brain development (McGrath et al., 2011). From an evolutionary developmental biology perspective (evo-devo), the dictum goes “Last in, first to break.”

It is rare that different fields of research converge in such an obedient fashion. It is time that we pause and reflect on this important milestone—and also offer a rousing “three cheers for Dolores Malapsina!”


Flatscher-Bader T, Foldi CJ, Chong S, Whitelaw E, Moser RJ, Burne TH, Eyles DW, McGrath JJ. Increased de novo copy number variants in the offspring of older males. Transl Psychiatry. 2011 Aug 30;1:e34. Abstract

Foldi CJ, Eyles DW, McGrath JJ, Burne TH. Advanced paternal age is associated with alterations in discrete behavioural domains and cortical neuroanatomy of C57BL/6J mice. Eur J Neurosci. 2010 Feb;31(3):556-64. Abstract Foldi CJ, Eyles DW, Flatscher-Bader T, McGrath JJ, Burne TH. New perspectives on rodent models of advanced paternal age: relevance to autism. Front Behav Neurosci . 2011 ; 5():32. Abstract

Kong A, Frigge ML, Masson G, Besenbacher S, Sulem P, Magnusson G, Gudjonsson SA, Sigurdsson A, Jonasdottir A, Jonasdottir A, Wong WS, Sigurdsson G, Walters GB, Steinberg S, Helgason H, Thorleifsson G, Gudbjartsson DF, Helgason A, Magnusson OT, Thorsteinsdottir U, Stefansson K. Rate of de novo mutations and the importance of father's age to disease risk. Nature. 2012 Aug 23;488(7412):471-5. Abstract

Malaspina D, Harlap S, Fennig S, Heiman D, Nahon D, Feldman D, Susser ES. Advancing paternal age and the risk of schizophrenia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2001 Apr ; 58(4):361-7. Abstract

McGrath JJ, Hannan AJ, Gibson G. Decanalization, brain development and risk of schizophrenia. Transl Psychiatry. Abstract

Petersen L, Mortensen PB, Pedersen CB. Paternal age at birth of first child and risk of schizophrenia. Am J Psychiatry. 2011 Jan;168(1):82-8. Abstract

Smith RG, Kember RL, Mill J, Fernandes C, Schalkwyk LC, Buxbaum JD, Reichenberg A. Advancing paternal age is associated with deficits in social and exploratory behaviors in the offspring: a mouse model. PLoS One. 2009 Dec 30;4(12):e8456. Abstract

Sun JX, Helgason A, Masson G, Ebenesersdóttir SS, Li H, Mallick S, Gnerre S, Patterson N, Kong A, Reich D, Stefansson K. A direct characterization of human mutation based on microsatellites. Nat Genet. 2012 Aug 23. Abstract

View all comments by John McGrathComment by:  Georg Winterer (Disclosure)
Submitted 28 August 2012
Posted 28 August 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

Just a few thoughts:

One question is whether it is just age per se that produces de novo mutations or an accumulation of environmental effects like drug abuse, alcohol, or other potentially harmful toxic environments, etc. What I also would like to know is whether it is the number of sperm cycles; in that case, men who are sexually more active should have a greater risk to produce more de novo mutations.

View all comments by Georg WintererComment by:  Michael O'Donovan, SRF AdvisorGeorge Kirov
Submitted 31 August 2012
Posted 31 August 2012

In a genomic sequencing study of 78 parent-proband trios (21 probands with schizophrenia, 44 with autism spectrum disorder [ASD]), Kong and colleagues (2012) identify almost 5,000 DNA single base changes that occurred as a result of new mutations. For five of the trios, the proband had a child who was also sequenced, and in this subset with three generations of data, Kong and colleagues were able to determine if the mutations had arisen on the paternal or maternal chromosomes. Although this subsample was small, paternal chromosomes showed much greater variance in the number of mutations than maternal chromosomes, suggesting that paternal variables are more relevant to variance in the overall de novo mutation rate than maternal variables. In the larger sample as a whole, although the parental origin of the mutations could not be determined, the number of new mutations carried by an individual could be almost completely explained by a combination of random variation and paternal age. Models of linear and of exponential increases in the number of mutations by paternal age both described the data well, the ability to distinguish between the two being constrained by a lack of fathers at the higher age. Children of fathers aged 40 had approximately twice the number of mutations as those aged 20. After accounting for random variation and paternal age, in this sample, there was very little residual variation to be explained by other factors, including maternal age and within-population environmental exposures. A possible impact of cross-population environmental exposures was not addressed, since all the subjects came from Iceland.

Overall, the findings from what is yet another impressive paper from the deCODE group support the proposition that paternal age is an important factor in determining the probability that a child might inherit a new mutation (see Goriely and Wilkie, 2012, for a wider discussion of earlier data on paternal age and mutation rates, particularly in sperm) and additionally quantify this effect in the context of other possible unexplained variables.

This is clearly an important paper for understanding factors dictating the rate by which new mutations occur, and is therefore a paper that will have wide relevance to diseases to which such mutations make a substantial contribution. But from the perspective of most readers of this Forum, it is more important to note what the study is not about.

There is good evidence that risk of schizophrenia increases with paternal age (Malaspina et al., 2001; Zammit et al., 2003; Frans et al., 2011). This is certainly compatible with the involvement of new mutations of the sort described in the paper by Kong and colleagues, but there are several alternative explanations. For example, fathers with high trait liability for schizophrenia might have subclinical characteristics making them less effective at reproduction (e.g., they may find it more difficult to find a partner) and, as a result, elderly fathers might be enriched for transmissible schizophrenia alleles. Consistent with this (and other explanations not dependent on new mutations), one large Danish study found that the paternal age effect was best explained by age at which fathers first reproduce, not the age (which is more relevant to new mutations) when the affected offspring was conceived (Petersen et al., 2011). Of general importance as it is, the study by Kong and colleagues makes no contribution to resolving to what extent the paternal age effect observed in schizophrenia (and autism) is explained by new mutations, or indeed to what extent new mutations are involved in these disorders at all. Indeed, as the authors point out, the fact that they have studied probands, the majority of whom are affected by schizophrenia or ASD, is an irrelevance; essentially identical findings would be expected if they had studied other types of families. This is because the average proband carries over 60 de novo mutations, of which, even under an extreme model in which all schizophrenia is caused by de novo mutations, at most, one or two (if any) might be schizophrenia or ASD relevant. Consequently, de novo mutations related to the phenotype of the proband cannot substantially contribute to the overall pattern of results.

Overall, this study provides empirical evidence for a mechanism by which some of the paternal age effects might be explained by de novo point mutations, but it is worth stressing that the fact that the authors have studied schizophrenia and ASD is incidental, and this study does not address the extent by which, if at all, mutations of this type make any contribution to schizophrenia (or autism). Finally, since the results of this paper have been widely reported (at least in the UK), we think it is important to note for the general reader that, while the paternal age effect of risk of schizophrenia (and autism) seems to be real, the vast majority of people with schizophrenia are not born to elderly fathers. More importantly, since the causal direction of the paternal age effect on schizophrenia risk is unknown, there is currently no strong reason to urge potential fathers to consider earlier reproduction as a strategy for reducing risk of this particular disorder.


Zammit S, Allebeck P, Dalman C, Lundberg I, Hemmingson T, Owen MJ, Lewis G. Paternal age and risk for schizophrenia. Br J Psychiatry. 2003 Nov;183:405-8. Abstract

Malaspina D, Harlap S, Fennig S, Heiman D, Nahon D, Feldman D, Susser ES. Advancing paternal age and the risk of schizophrenia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2001 Apr;58(4):361-7. Abstract

Goriely A, Wilkie AO. Paternal age effect mutations and selfish spermatogonial selection: causes and consequences for human disease. Am J Hum Genet. 2012 Feb 10;90(2):175-200. Review. Abstract

Frans EM, McGrath JJ, Sandin S, Lichtenstein P, Reichenberg A, Långström N, Hultman CM. Advanced paternal and grandpaternal age and schizophrenia: a three-generation perspective. Schizophr Res. 2011 Dec;133(1-3):120-4. Epub 2011 Oct 14. Abstract

Petersen L, Mortensen PB, Pedersen CB. Paternal age at birth of first child and risk of schizophrenia. Am J Psychiatry. 2011 Jan;168(1):82-8. Epub 2010 Oct 15. Abstract

View all comments by Michael O'Donovan
View all comments by George KirovComment by:  Bernard Crespi
Submitted 3 September 2012
Posted 5 September 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

Kong et al. (2012) is an outstanding paper that provides the first detailed quantification of how human de novo mutations in sperm and eggs vary with parental age. The paper and its aftermath provide a number of important lessons for researchers studying neurodevelopmental disorders and parental age:

1. The work demonstrates directly that CpG dinucleotides contribute the lion's share of new mutations. CpG sites are of particular interest in understanding effects of de novo mutations because they differentially create new transcription factor binding sites (Zemojtel et al., 2011), as well as mediate the effects of methylation and genomic imprinting. Such findings might help to focus efforts at interpreting the functional importance of the myriad de novo variants that pepper each genome.

2. The work generates an apparent paradox: if, as the authors claim, paternal age so strongly predominates over maternal age in its de novo mutational effects, why do so many parental-age studies of autism and schizophrenia show clear effects of maternal age as well (e.g., Lopez-Castroman et al., 2010; Parner et al., 2012; Rahbar et al., 2012; Sandin et al., 2012)? Might maternal-age effects be mediated by different processes?

3. The X chromosome was not included in the analysis, despite its expected contribution to de novo mutational effects being much stronger than for autosomes, due to its hemizygosity (as found, e.g., in intellectual disability). A recent study also strikingly implicates the X chromosome in psychosis risk, perhaps involving epigenetic mechanisms (Goldstein et al., 2011).

4. It is important to avoid neurodevelopmental tunnel vision with regard to parental age effects. Advanced maternal age, for example, has been documented as a risk factor for a suite of other conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's (for a review, see Myrskylä and Fenelon, 2012), as expected if it exerts effects on all polygenic conditions.

5. As anyone following popular media accounts will have noticed, the paper has been fundamentally misinterpreted in translation from the scientific to popular literature. Contrary to almost all reports in the popular press (including, e.g., The New York Times), the paper clearly does not show that higher paternal age is associated with mutations that increase the risk of autism or schizophrenia. As noted by other commentators, to do so would require that the authors link paternal age with the number of new mutations that are actually known to contribute to autism or schizophrenia. This muddle should caution authors to be as clear in explaining what their findings do not show as they are in explaining what they actually demonstrate. If subsequent work shows that age-dependent point mutations themselves do not mediate increased autism or schizophrenia risk, scientific credibility will unjustifiably suffer.

6. Finally, the press has jumped on advanced parental age as an important possible factor in the increased diagnoses of autism over the past 30 or so years. But if increased mutation load has increased rates of autism, why haven't rates of schizophrenia increased in lockstep, albeit with a 20-year delay?

Parental age has been suspected as an important factor in genetically based, de novo conditions since Weinberg (of Hardy-Weinberg fame) noticed in 1912 that children with achondroplasia (a form of dwarfism) were later-born in sibships. One hundred years later, we are one large step closer to understanding why. Let us help to ensure that this step is free of de novo errors of interpretation and implication, and move forward with speed.


Goldstein JM, Cherkerzian S, Seidman LJ, Petryshen TL, Fitzmaurice G, Tsuang MT, Buka SL. Sex-specific rates of transmission of psychosis in the New England high-risk family study. Schizophr Res. 2011 May;128(1-3):150-5. Abstract

Kong A, Frigge ML, Masson G, Besenbacher S, Sulem P, Magnusson G, Gudjonsson SA, Sigurdsson A, Jonasdottir A, Jonasdottir A, Wong WS, Sigurdsson G, Walters GB, Steinberg S, Helgason H, Thorleifsson G, Gudbjartsson DF, Helgason A, Magnusson OT, Thorsteinsdottir U, Stefansson K. Rate of de novo mutations and the importance of father's age to disease risk. Nature. 2012 Aug 22; 488: 471-5. Abstract

Lopez-Castroman J, Gómez DD, Belloso JJ, Fernandez-Navarro P, Perez-Rodriguez MM, Villamor IB, Navarrete FF, Ginestar CM, Currier D, Torres MR, Navio-Acosta M, Saiz-Ruiz J, Jimenez-Arriero MA, Baca-Garcia E. Differences in maternal and paternal age between schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. Schizophr Res. 2010 Feb;116(2-3):184-90. Abstract

Myrskylä M, Fenelon A. Maternal Age and Offspring Adult Health: Evidence From the Health and Retirement Study. Demography . 2012 Aug 28. Abstract

Parner ET, Baron-Cohen S, Lauritsen MB, Jørgensen M, Schieve LA, Yeargin-Allsopp M, Obel C. Parental age and autism spectrum disorders. Ann Epidemiol. 2012 Mar;22(3):143-50. Abstract

Rahbar MH, Samms-Vaughan M, Loveland KA, Pearson DA, Bressler J, Chen Z, Ardjomand-Hessabi M, Shakespeare-Pellington S, Grove ML, Beecher C, Bloom K, Boerwinkle E. Maternal and Paternal Age are Jointly Associated with Childhood Autism in Jamaica. J Autism Dev Disord. 2012 Sep;42(9):1928-38. Abstract

Sandin S, Hultman CM, Kolevzon A, Gross R, MacCabe JH, Reichenberg A. Advancing maternal age is associated with increasing risk for autism: a review and meta-analysis. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 May;51(5):477-486.e1. Abstract

Zemojtel T, Kielbasa SM, Arndt PF, Behrens S, Bourque G, Vingron M. CpG deamination creates transcription factor-binding sites with high efficiency. Genome Biol Evol. 2011;3:1304-11. Abstract

View all comments by Bernard Crespi

Comments on Related News

Related News: Autism Exome: Lessons for Schizophrenia?

Comment by:  Patrick Sullivan, SRF Advisor
Submitted 20 April 2012
Posted 23 April 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

Fascinating papers that likely presage work in the pipeline from multiple groups for schizophrenia. Truly groundbreaking work by some of the best groups in the business. Required reading for those interested in psychiatric genomics.

The identified loci provide important new windows into the neurobiology of ASD.

The results also pertain to the longstanding debate about the nature of ASD: does it result from many individually rare, Mendelian-like variants (potentially a different one in each person) and/or from the summation of the effects of many different common variants of subtle effects?

The multiple rare variant model now seems unlikely for ASD as, contrary to the expectations of some, ASD did not readily resolve into a handful of Mendelian-like diseases. (This comment is of course qualified by the limits of the technologies - which have, however, identified causal mutations for many monogenetic disorders.)

Readers might also want to read Ben Neale's comments on these papers at the Genomes Unzipped website.

View all comments by Patrick Sullivan

Related News: Neurexin-Neuroligin Regulate Synapse Form and Function

Comment by:  Christian Schaaf
Submitted 14 August 2012
Posted 14 August 2012

Neurexins and neuroligins are some of the best-characterized cell-adhesion molecules. They are trans-synaptic cell-adhesion molecules that mediate essential signaling between pre- and postsynaptic specializations, signaling that performs a central role in the brain’s ability to process information, and that is a key target in the pathogenesis of cognitive diseases (Südhof, 2008). And indeed, all human neurexin genes (NRXN1, NRXN2, NRXN3) and all (NLGN1, NGLN3, NLGN4X, NLGN4Y) but one human neuroligin gene (NLGN2) have been associated with autism. In addition, NRXN1 has also been associated with schizophrenia with high confidence (Kirov et al., 2009). Recent studies about neurexins and neuroligins are now making some inroads in two directions: 1) genotype-phenotype correlations, and 2) the basic science of how neurexins and neuroligins participate in the assembly of pre- and postsynaptic membranes, and how they mediate signaling between the two.

1. Schaaf et al. (Schaaf et al., 2012) reported on a cohort of 24 individuals with small NRXN1 deletions, and found that more C-terminal deletions, especially the ones encompassing the sequence encoding neurexin-1β, seem to predispose to both macrocephaly and epilepsy when compared to those only deleting N-terminal segments of the NRXN1 gene. Subsequently, Tanaka et al. (Tanaka et al., 2012) investigated the higher-order architecture of cell adhesion mediated by neurexin-1 and neuroligin-1, and found that the ectodomain complex of neurexin-1β and neuroligin-1 spontaneously assembles into crystals of a lateral, sheet-like superstructure topologically compatible with transcellular adhesion. However, this higher-order architecture was not formed between neuroligin-1 and the much longer neurexin-1α isoform, thereby suggesting a functional discrimination mechanism between synaptic contacts made by different isoforms of neurexin variants.

2. New studies that came out just last week provide intriguing insight into the underlying molecular mechanisms (Hu et al., 2012; Owald et al., 2012). Hu et al. show in C. elegans how neurexin and neuroligin mediate retrograde synaptic inhibition, with slow and prolonged postsynaptic responses in mutants of Nlg-1 or Nrx-1. In children with ASDs, it has been shown that acoustic responses are slower, and multisensory responses are integrated over a longer time window. In individuals with schizophrenia, abnormal sensory gating is a well-established phenomenon. The results of Hu’s study suggest that altered kinetics of synaptic responses could be an important cellular defect in ASDs and schizophrenia.


Südhof TC. Neuroligins and neurexins link synaptic function to cognitive disease. Nature . 2008 Oct 16 ; 455(7215):903-11. Abstract

Schaaf CP, Boone PM, Sampath S, Williams C, Bader PI, Mueller JM, Shchelochkov OA, Brown CW, Crawford HP, Phalen JA, Tartaglia NR, Evans P, Campbell WM, Chun-Hui Tsai A, Parsley L, Grayson SW, Scheuerle A, Luzzi CD, Thomas SK, Eng PA, Kang SH, Patel A, Stankiewicz P, Cheung SW. Phenotypic spectrum and genotype-phenotype correlations of NRXN1 exon deletions. Eur J Hum Genet . 2012 May 23. Abstract

Kirov G, Rujescu D, Ingason A, Collier DA, O'Donovan MC, Owen MJ. Neurexin 1 (NRXN1) deletions in schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull . 2009 Sep 1 ; 35(5):851-4. Abstract

Tanaka H, Miyazaki N, Matoba K, Nogi T, Iwasaki K, Takagi J. Higher-order architecture of cell adhesion mediated by polymorphic synaptic adhesion molecules neurexin and neuroligin. Cell Rep . 2012 Jul 26 ; 2(1):101-10. Abstract

View all comments by Christian Schaaf

Related News: Exome Sequencing Hints at Prenatal Genes in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Sven CichonMarcella RietschelMarkus M. Nöthen
Submitted 5 October 2012
Posted 5 October 2012

The new exome sequencing study by Xu et al. confirms previous results by the same research group (Xu et al., 2011) and by an independent group (Girard et al., 2011) that a significantly higher frequency of protein-altering de novo single nucleotide variants (SNVs) and in/dels is found in sporadic patients with schizophrenia. It is certainly reassuring that this observation has now been confirmed in an independent and considerably larger sample (134 patient-parent trios and 34 control-parent trios).

A closer look also reveals differences between this study and the study by Girard et al.: Xu et al. do not find a significantly higher overall de novo mutation rate per base per generation when comparing schizophrenia and control trios (1.73 x 10-08 vs. 1.28 x 10-08). In contrast, the Girard study found 2.59 x 10-08 de novo mutations in schizophrenia trios as opposed to the 1.1 x 10-08 events reported in the general population by the 1000 Genomes Project. The larger sample size in the new study by Xu et al., however, suggests that their estimation of the de novo mutation rates may be more precise now.

What eventually seems to count is the quality of the de novo mutations in the sporadic schizophrenia patients. The function of the genes hit by the non-synonymous/deleterious (as defined by in-silico scores) mutations is diverse and shows similarity with functions reported for common risk genes for schizophrenia identified by GWAS. Interestingly, there is an overrepresentation of genes that are predominantly expressed during embryogenesis, strongly highlighting a possible effect of neurodevelopmental disturbances in the etiology of schizophrenia (and nicely supporting what has already been concluded from GWAS).

It would probably be very interesting to estimate the penetrance of such de novo mutations to get a feeling for their individual impact on the development of the disease. In the absence of a reasonable number of individuals with the same mutation, however, this will be a difficult task.

Another aspect that is missing in the current paper, but is accessible to investigation, is the frequency/quality of de novo mutations in trios with a family history of schizophrenia and comparison to the figures seen in the sporadic trios. That might (or might not) support the authors’ conclusion that de novo events play a strong role in sporadic cases (and not in familial cases).


Xu B, Roos JL, Dexheimer P, Boone B, Plummer B, Levy S, Gogos JA, Karayiorgou M. Exome sequencing supports a de novo mutational paradigm for schizophrenia. Nat Genet . 2011 Sep ; 43(9):864-8. Abstract

Girard SL, Gauthier J, Noreau A, Xiong L, Zhou S, Jouan L, Dionne-Laporte A, Spiegelman D, Henrion E, Diallo O, Thibodeau P, Bachand I, Bao JY, Tong AH, Lin CH, Millet B, Jaafari N, Joober R, Dion PA, Lok S, Krebs MO, Rouleau GA. Increased exonic de novo mutation rate in individuals with schizophrenia. Nat Genet . 2011 Sep ; 43(9):860-3. Abstract

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Related News: Exome Sequencing Hints at Prenatal Genes in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Patrick Sullivan, SRF Advisor
Submitted 5 October 2012
Posted 5 October 2012

This paper by the productive group at Columbia increases our knowledge of the role of rare exon mutations in schizophrenia. The authors applied exome sequencing—a newish high-throughput sequencing technology—to trios consisting of both parents plus an offspring with schizophrenia. The authors focused on a subset of the genome (the “exome,” genetic regions believed to code for protein) on a subset of genetic variants (SNPs and insertion/deletion variants) of predicted functional significance, and on one type of inheritance (“de novo“ mutations, those absent in both parents and present in the offspring with schizophrenia).

The sample sizes are the largest yet reported for schizophrenia—231 affected trios and 34 controls. About 28 percent of these samples were reported in 2011 (Xu et al., 2011). A recent schizophrenia sequencing study (N = 166) from the Duke group was unrevealing (Need et al., 2012). The numbers in the Xu, 2012 paper are small compared to the three Nature trio studies for autism (see SRF related news story), an approximately threefold larger trio study for schizophrenia (in preparation), a case-control exome sequencing study for schizophrenia (total N ~5,000, in preparation), and a case-control exome chip study for schizophrenia (total N ~11,000, in preparation).

The authors reported:

more mutations with older fathers, as has been reported before (see SRF related news story). Note that advanced paternal age is an established risk factor for schizophrenia.

more de novo/predicted functional/exonic mutations in schizophrenia than in controls. However, the difference was slight, one-sided P = 0.03. One can quibble with the use of a one-tailed test (should never be used, in my opinion), but it is difficult to interpret this result unless paternal age is included as a covariate in this critical test.

an impressive set of bioinformatic and integrative analyses—see the paper for the large amount of work they did.

as might be predicted given the small sample size and the rarity of these sorts of mutations, there was no statistically significant pile-up of variants in specific genes. Hence, to my reading, the authors do not compellingly implicate any specific genes in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia. This conclusion is consistent with Need et al., 2012, and I note that the autism work implicated only a few genes (e.g., CHD8 and KATNAL2).

Note that the authors would disagree with the above, as they chose to focus on a set of genes that they thought stood out (reporting an aggregate P of 0.002), and the last third of the paper focuses on these genes. However, the human genetics community now insists on two critical points for implicating specific genes in associations with a disorder. The first is statistical significance, and the critical P value for an exome sequencing study is on the order of 1E-6. The second is replication. In my view, neither of these standards are achieved. However, their observations are intriguing, and may well eventually move us forward.

The key observation in this paper is the increased rate of de novo variation in schizophrenia cases. Is the increased rate indeed part of an etiological process? In other words, older fathers have an increased chance of exonic mutations, and these, in turn, increase risk for schizophrenia? Or are these merely hitch-hikers of no particularly biological import?

A major issue with exome studies is that there are so many predicted functional variants in apparently normal people. We all carry on the order of 100 exonic variants of predicted functional consequences with on the order of 20 genes that are probable knockouts. If part of the risk for schizophrenia indeed resides in the exome, very large studies will be required to identify such loci confidently. Moreover, published work on autism and unpublished work for type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, and schizophrenia suggest that this will require very large sample sizes, on the order of 100 times more than reported here. And, it is possible that the exome is not all that important for schizophrenia.


Xu B, Roos JL, Dexheimer P, Boone B, Plummer B, Levy S, Gogos JA, Karayiorgou M. Exome sequencing supports a de novo mutational paradigm for schizophrenia. Nat Genet . 2011 Sep ; 43(9):864-8. Abstract

Need AC, McEvoy JP, Gennarelli M, Heinzen EL, Ge D, Maia JM, Shianna KV, He M, Cirulli ET, Gumbs CE, Zhao Q, Campbell CR, Hong L, Rosenquist P, Putkonen A, Hallikainen T, Repo-Tiihonen E, Tiihonen J, Levy DL, Meltzer HY, Goldstein DB. Exome sequencing followed by large-scale genotyping suggests a limited role for moderately rare risk factors of strong effect in schizophrenia. Am J Hum Genet . 2012 Aug 10 ; 91(2):303-12. Abstract

View all comments by Patrick Sullivan

Related News: Ambitious Genetic Integration Analysis of Schizophrenia Points to Early Brain Development

Comment by:  Roger Boshes
Submitted 10 August 2013
Posted 20 August 2013

These data suggest a "stem" circuit that may be common to many patients with schizophrenia, but subsequent de novo mutations may explain the protean manifestations of the disorder. Alternatively, this prefrontal perturbation may be related to a heritable, i.e., not a somatic, mutation that explains 80 percent heritability but not the protean phenotypic expression of the condition. Finally, it may be the link between schizophrenia and some flavors of autism.


Boshes RA, Manschreck TC, Konigsberg W. Genetics of the schizophrenias: a model accounting for their persistence and myriad phenotypes. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2012 May-Jun; 20(3):119-29. Abstract

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Related News: New Exome Evidence Points to Old Suspect in Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Francis McMahon, SRF Advisor
Submitted 23 January 2014
Posted 28 January 2014

I think these studies do represent real progress. Finding genetic support for particular pathways provides unique evidence for a causative role of these pathways in disease. Why didn't the case-control study point to individual genes? Disorders such as schizophrenia may be more like a plane crash than a typical inherited disease: Since many things can go wrong, each crash is different, but damage to key systems is very likely to lead to a bad outcome. The finding in Fromer et al. that there are 18 genes with recurrent deleterious de novo events should allow scientists to focus on these genes as especially important. The overlaps with autism and intellectual disability are interesting, though not entirely unexpected. Will we also see gene overlaps with illnesses such as bipolar disorder? It wouldn't surprise me if some of the same genes are involved, but with fewer, less deleterious hits.

View all comments by Francis McMahon