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WCPG 2013—New Mutations Pop Up in Schizophrenia Genomes

October 31, 2013. Several talks at the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics, held October 17-21 in Boston, Massachusetts, focused on new mutations and their possible role in schizophrenia. “De novo” mutations arise spontaneously in the genome rather than being inherited from the parents. Though rare, these events occur more often than previously appreciated, and recent studies argue for their role in disorders such as schizophrenia (see SRF related news story and SRF news story) and autism (see SRF related news story). According to some researchers, these new mutations are leads worth following for several reasons: They offer an explanation for why schizophrenia endures even though many people with the disorder do not go on to have children; they may well be fairly potent (and thus disease related) because natural selection has not yet had a chance to temper their effects; and several speakers suggested that, though they are not inherited, they may covertly contribute to measures of heritability based on twin studies (in the case that a de novo mutation-harboring sperm or egg cell gives rise to monozygotic twins).

Sequencing as a family affair
As sequencing prices fall, this technique offers a fine-toothed way to sift the genome for mutations, including those point mutations that change a single letter in the DNA code. But it turns out that our genomes are rife with mutations, making it hard to identify which are related to a disorder. To get around this, researchers are sequencing families, whose shared genetic background should help signals pop out of the genetic noise. De novo mutations are an extreme example of this approach, since by definition they are those mutations found in a person affected by a disorder but not in either parent.

Combing through the protein-coding portion of the genome—the exome—turns up de novo mutations in schizophrenia, according to two talks given on Saturday, October 19. Dick McCombie of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and colleagues searched for de novo mutations among exome sequences of 42 trios consisting of a person with schizophrenia and both parents. This study revealed 47 de novo mutations, some of which constituted protein-truncating “nonsense” mutations. These nonsense mutations were enriched in schizophrenia and hit genes already implicated in autism, including a chromatin remodeling gene called CHD8 and a transcription factor gene called AUTS2. McCombie also reported a protein-altering “missense” mutation found in MECP2, the causal gene for Rett syndrome, which shares features with autism. MECP2, CHD8, and other genes fingered in this study have roles in modifying chromatin, which controls gene expression. These may flag an important contribution by chromatin remodeling to psychiatric illness, including schizophrenia.

Daniel Howrigan, a postdoc in Ben Neale’s group at the Broad Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, presented results from a similar de novo study of schizophrenia. Exome sequencing of a sizeable cohort of 1,135 trios from Taiwan gave rise to 1,157 de novo loss-of-function events in people with schizophrenia. This frequency was higher than expected, and the genes hit by these events overlap with those in a molecular network centered around FMRP, the gene disrupted in fragile X syndrome (Darnell et al., 2011). This again suggests a relationship between autism and schizophrenia among rare variants, which may reflect shared origins in early brain development.

On Monday, October 21, Shaun Purcell of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City summarized the latest results from exome sequencing of over 600 trios from a Bulgarian cohort. Though he reported no significant increase in overall number of de novo mutations found in schizophrenia compared to controls, he did find these mutations hit disease-related gene sets more than expected by chance, including schizophrenia candidate genes, genes linked to autism or intellectual disability, and genes encoding members of the postsynaptic density (particularly those in the activity-regulated cytoskeleton-associated protein complex, or ARC). While this constitutes statistical evidence, it reinforces the notion that a diverse lot of genes scattered across the genome contribute to schizophrenia risk.

Our mutable genomes
A symposium on Sunday shifted focus from which genes are hit by de novo mutations to why new mutations happen in the first place. As our genomes are replicated and divided in meiosis and mitosis, there are many opportunities for mistakes to occur that remain uncorrected. These mistakes can contribute substantially to nervous system disorders, according to a new study of whole-exome sequencing in a clinical setting by James Lupski of Baylor University and colleagues (Yang et al., 2013). Exome sequencing in 250 people with suspected genetic syndromes but without a clear diagnosis (a majority of whom had neurological problems) returned a “molecular diagnosis” in 25 percent—meaning a mutation deemed to be highly deleterious was found. The majority of these constituted de novo mutations, which suggests they contribute to a wide swath of brain disorders.

As for the origins of these de novo mutations, some locations in the genome are repeat offenders. For example, some CNVs result during meiosis when strings of highly similar DNA sequences throw off the alignment of chromosomes before they swap DNA segments during recombination. Thus, these highly similar sequences, known as segmental duplications, constitute hotbeds for CNV mutations. Similarly, it looks as though certain single nucleotide positions within the genome are predisposed to point mutations, according to Jonathan Sebat of the University of California, San Diego. Whole-genome sequencing of 10 families consisting of two monozygotic twins both diagnosed with autism and their unaffected parents found 581 de novo point mutations, which clustered in certain locales of the genome, including those containing genes already implicated in autism. Modeling results suggested that how susceptible a single position of the genome is to mutation depends on its conservation across species, its accessibility for transcription (e.g., DNAse hypersensitivity and chromatin state), its surrounding nucleotide sequence, and recombination rates. Sebat cast these point mutation hotspots as features of the genome in general rather than being specific to autism and noted that they occurred both in low and highly conserved regions.

Somatic mutation
The next two talks focused on the discomfiting possibility of de novo somatic mutation. This type of mutation arises during the many rounds of mitosis that ensue during embryonic development. A mistake in DNA replication in one cell will then be passed on to subsequent daughter cells. This would make the embryo, and possibly the brain as well, a complicated mixture of cells, with some carrying the mutation and others not. This means that a given blood cell (the usual source for genetic studies of disease) may or may not carry a somatic mutation—a severe handicap to research if that mutation happens to be the causal variant for a disease.

To begin to define features of somatic mutations, Steven McCarroll of the Broad Institute described the vulnerable moments during cell division that are most prone to mutation. Work done with his postdoc, Amnon Koren, has identified a consistent time sequence during which different parts of the genome replicate. Those that replicate late are more prone to point mutations and CNVs arising from faulty double-strand break repairs, whereas those replicating early were predisposed to CNVs that arise from chromosome misalignment prior to recombination (Koren et al., 2012). New results suggest that replication timing varies among people at hundreds of loci and that replication timing is a genetic trait influenced by common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). This suggests the somewhat eerie idea that the genome regulates its own mutability.

Despite these measures of somatic mutation occurrence, it’s hard to know how many neurons in the brain actually harbor one. To get at this question, Christopher Walsh of Boston Children’s Hospital has been trolling single neurons isolated from postmortem brains for somatic mutations. One focus has been on L1 retrotransposons, which can insert themselves into a gene and disrupt its function, thus resulting in a somatic mutation. These “jumping genes” have been hypothesized to spur neuronal diversity in the brain (Singer et al., 2010). Walsh covered results published last year that surveyed 300 neurons isolated from postmortem tissue from three healthy people and found that less than 0.4 percent of neurons in the cortex carried an L1 insertion (Evrony et al., 2012). Those with an L1 insertion tended to cluster within a gyrus, suggesting they came from the same L1 insertion-carrying progenitor. Whether this kind of mutation contributes to psychiatric disease, though, is still an open question.—Michele Solis.

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  Daniel Weinberger, SRF Advisor
Submitted 27 March 2008
Posted 27 March 2008

The paper by Walsh et al. is an important addition to the expanding literature on copy number variations in the human genome and their potential role in causing neuropsychiatric disorders. It is clear that copy number variations are important aspects of human genetic variation and that deletions and duplications in diverse genes throughout the genome are likely to affect the function of these genes and possibly the development and function of the human brain. So-called private variations, such as those described in this paper, i.e., changes in the genome found in only a single individual, as all of these variations are, are difficult to establish as pathogenic factors, because it is hard to know how much they contribute to the complex problem of human behavioral variation in a single individual. If the change is private, i.e., only in one case and not enriched in cases as a group, as are common genetic polymorphisms such as SNPs, how much they account for case status is very difficult to prove.

An assumption implicit in this paper is that these private variations may be major factors in the case status of the individuals who have them. The data of this paper suggest, however, this is actually not the case, at least for the childhood onset cases. Here’s why: mentioned in the paper is a statement that only two of the CNVs in the childhood cases are de novo, i.e., spontaneous and not inherited (and one of these is on the Y chromosome, making its functional implications obscure). If most of the CNVs are inherited, they can’t be causing illness per se as major effect players because they are coming from well parents.

Also, if you add up all CNVs in transmitted and non-transmitted chromosomes of the parents, it’s something like 31 gene-based CNVs in 154 parents (i.e., 20 percent of the parents have a gene-based deletion or duplication in the very illness-related pathways that are highlighted in the cases), which is at least as high a frequency as in the adult-onset schizophrenia sample in this study…and three times the frequency as found in the adult controls. This is not to say that such variants might not represent susceptibility genetic factors, or show variable penetrance between individuals, like other polymorphisms, and contribute to the complex genetic risk architecture, like other genetic variations that have been more consistently associated with schizophrenia. However, the CNV literature has tended to seek a more major effect connotation to the findings.

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  William Honer
Submitted 28 March 2008
Posted 28 March 2008
  I recommend the Primary Papers

As new technologies are applied to understanding the etiology and pathophysiology of schizophrenia, considering the clinical features of the cases studied and the implications of the findings is of value. The conclusion of the Walsh et al. paper, “these results suggest that schizophrenia can be caused by rare mutations….“ is worth considering carefully.

What evidence is needed to link an observation in the laboratory or clinic to cause? Recent recommendations for the content of papers in epidemiology (von Elm et al., 2008) remind us of the suggestions of A.V. Hill (Hill, 1965). To discern the implications of a finding, or association, for causality, Hill suggests assessment of the following:

1. Strength of the association: this is not the observed p-value, but a measure of the magnitude of the association. In the Walsh et al. study, the primary outcome measure, structural variants duplicating or deleting genes was observed in 15 percent of cases, and 5 percent of controls. But what is the association with? The diagnostic entity of schizophrenia, or some risk factor for the illness? Of interest, and noted in the Supporting Online Material, these variants were present in 7/15 (47 percent) of the cases with presumed IQ <80, but only 15/135 (11 percent) of the cases with IQ >80. Are the structural variants more strongly associated with mental retardation (within schizophrenia 47 percent vs. 11 percent) than with diagnosis (11 percent vs. 5 percent of controls, assuming normal IQ)? This is of particular interest in the context of the speculation in the paper concerning the importance of genes putatively involved with brain development in the etiology of schizophrenia.

2. Consistency of results in the literature across studies and research groups: there are now several papers examining copy number variation in schizophrenia, including a report from our group (Wilson et al., 2006). The authors of the present paper state that each variant observed was unique, and so consistency of the specific findings could be argued to be irrelevant, if the model is of novel mutations (more on models below). Undoubtedly, future meta-analyses and accumulating databases help determine if there is anything consistent in the findings, other than a higher frequency of any abnormalities in cases rather than controls.

3. Specificity of the findings to the illness in question: this was not addressed experimentally in the paper. However, the findings of more abnormalities in the putative low IQ cases, and the similarity of the findings to reports in autism and mental retardation, suggest that this criterion for supporting causality is unlikely to be met.

4. Temporality: the abnormalities should precede the illness. If DNA from terminally differentiated neurons harbors the same variants as DNA from constantly renewed populations of lymphocytes, then clearly this condition is met. While it seems highly likely that this is the case, it is worthwhile considering the possibility that DNA structure may vary between tissue types, or between cell populations. Even within human brain there is some evidence for chromosomal heterogeneity (Rehen et al., 2005).

5. Biological gradient: presence of a “dose-response” curve strengthens the likelihood of a causal relationship. This condition is not met within cases: only 1/115 appeared to have more than one variant. However, in the presumably more severe childhood onset form of schizophrenia, four individuals carried multiple variants, and the observation of a higher prevalence of variants overall. Still, the question of what the observations of CNV are associated with is relevant, since one of the inclusion/exclusion criteria for COS allowed IQ 65-80, and it is uncertain how many of these cases had some degree of intellectual deficit.

6. Plausibility: biological likelihood—quite difficult to satisfy as a criterion, in the context of the limits of knowledge concerning the mechanisms of illness of schizophrenia.

7. Coherence of the observation with known facts about the illness: the genetic basis of schizophrenia is quite well studied, and there is no dearth of theories concerning genetic architecture. However, a coherent model remains lacking. As examples, the suggestion is made that the observations concerning inherited CNVs in the COS cases are linked with a severe family history in this type of illness. This appears inconsistent with a high penetrance model for CNVs as suggested in the opening of the paper (presuming the parents in COS families are unaffected, as would seem likely). Elsewhere, CNVs are proposed by the authors to be related to de novo events, and an interaction with an environmental modifier, folate (and exposure to famine), is posited (McClellan et al., 2006). A model of the effects of CNVs, which generates falsifiable hypotheses is needed.

8. Experiment: the ability to intervene clinically to modify the effects of CNVs disrupting genes seems many years away.

9. Analogy: the novelty of the CNV findings is both intriguing, but limiting in understanding the likelihood of causal relationships.

The intersection of clinical realities and novel laboratory technologies will fuel the need for better translational research in schizophrenia for many, many more years.


von Elm E, Altman DG, Egger M, Pocock SJ, Gřtzsche PC, Vandenbroucke JP. Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) statement: guidelines for reporting observational studies. J Clin Epidemiol. 2008 Apr 1;61(4):344-349. Abstract


Wilson GM, Flibotte S, Chopra V, Melnyk BL, Honer WG, Holt RA. DNA copy-number analysis in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia reveals aberrations in genes involved in glutamate signaling. Hum Mol Genet. 2006 Mar 1;15(5):743-9. Abstract

Rehen SK, Yung YC, McCreight MP, Kaushal D, Yang AH, Almeida BSV, Kingsbury MA, Cabral KMS, McConnell MJ, Anliker B, Fontanoz M, Chun J: Constitutional aneuploidy in the normal human brain. J Neurosci 2005; 25:2176-2180. Abstract

McClellan JM, ESusser E, King M-C: Maternal famine, de novo mutations, and schizophrenia. JAMA 2006; 296:582-584. Abstract

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  Todd LenczAnil Malhotra (SRF Advisor)
Submitted 30 March 2008
Posted 30 March 2008

The new study by Walsh et al. (2008), as well as recent data from other groups working in schizophrenia, autism, and mental retardation, make a strong case for including copy number variants as an important source of risk for neurodevelopmental phenotypes. These findings raise several intriguing new questions for future research, including: the degree of causality/penetrance that can be attributed to individual CNVs; diagnostic specificity; and recency of their origins. While these questions are difficult to address in the context of private mutations, one potential source of additional information is the examination of common, recurrent CNVs, which have not yet been systematically studied as potential risk factors for schizophrenia.

Still, the association of rare CNVs with schizophrenia provides additional evidence that genetic transmission patterns may be a complex hybrid of common, low-penetrant alleles and rare, highly penetrant variants. In diseases ranging from Parkinson's to colon cancer, the literature demonstrates that rare penetrant loci are frequently embedded within an otherwise complex disease. Perhaps the most well-known example involves mutations in amyloid precursor protein and the presenilins in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Although extremely rare, accounting for <1 percent of all cases of AD, identification of these autosomal dominant subtypes greatly enhanced understanding of pathophysiology. Similarly, a study of consanguineous families in Iran has very recently identified a rare autosomal recessive form of mental retardation (MR) caused by glutamate receptor (GRIK2) mutations, thereby opening new avenues of research (Motazacker et al., 2007). In schizophrenia, we have recently employed a novel, case-control approach to homozygosity mapping (Lencz et al., 2007), resulting in several candidate loci that may harbor highly penetrant recessive variants. Taken together, these results suggest that a diversity of methodological approaches will be needed to parse genetic heterogeneity in schizophrenia.


Motazacker MM, Rost BR, Hucho T, Garshasbi M, Kahrizi K, Ullmann R, Abedini SS, Nieh SE, Amini SH, Goswami C, Tzschach A, Jensen LR, Schmitz D, Ropers HH, Najmabadi H, Kuss AW. (2007) A defect in the ionotropic glutamate receptor 6 gene (GRIK2) is associated with autosomal recessive mental retardation. Am J Hum Genet. 81(4):792-8. Abstract

Lencz T, Lambert C, DeRosse P, Burdick KE, Morgan TV, Kane JM, Kucherlapati R,Malhotra AK (2007). Runs of homozygosity reveal highly penetrant recessive loci in schizophrenia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 104(50):19942-7. Abstract

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  Ben Pickard
Submitted 31 March 2008
Posted 31 March 2008

In my mind, the study of CNVs in autism (and likely soon in schizophrenia/bipolar disorder, which are a little behind) is likely to put biological meat on the bones of illness etiology and finally lay to rest the annoyingly persistent taunts that genetics hasn’t delivered on its promises for psychiatric illness.

I don’t think it’s necessary at the moment to wring our hands at any inconsistencies between the Walsh et al. and previous studies of CNV in schizophrenia (e.g., Kirov et al., 2008). There are a number of factors which I think are going to influence the frequency, type, and identity of CNVs found in any given study.

1. CNVs are going to be found at the rare/penetrant/familial end of the disease allele spectrum—in direct contrast to the common risk variants which are the targets of recent GWAS studies. In the short term, we are likely to see a large number of different CNVs identified. The nature of this spectrum, however, is that there will be more common pathological CNVs which should be replicated sooner—NRXN1, APBA2 (Kirov et al., 2008), CNTNAP2 (Friedman et al., 2008)—and may be among some of these “low hanging fruit.” For the rarer CNVs, proving a pathological role is going to be a real headache. Large studies or meta-analyses are never going to yield significant p-values for rare CNVs which, nevertheless, may be the chief causes of illness for those few individuals who carry them. Showing clear segregation with illness in families is likely to be the only means to judge their role. However, we must not expect a pure cause-and-effect role for all CNVs: even in the Scottish t(1;11) family disrupting the DISC1 gene, there are several instances of healthy carriers.

2. Sample selection is also likely to be critical. In the Kirov paper, samples were chosen to represent sporadic and family history-positive cases equally. In the Walsh paper, samples were taken either from hospital patients (the majority) or a cohort of childhood onset schizophrenia. Detailed evidence for family history on a case-by-case basis was not given but appeared far stronger in the childhood onset cases. CNVs appeared to be more prevalent, and as expected, more familial, in the latter cohort. A greater frequency was also observed in the Kirov study familial subset.

3. Inclusion criteria are likely to be important—particularly in the more sporadic cases without family history. This is because CNVs found in this group may be commoner and less penetrant—they will be more frequent in cases than in controls but not exclusively found in cases. Any strategy, such as that used in the Kirov paper, which discounts a CNV based on its presence—even singly—in the control group is likely to bias against this class.

4. Technical issues. Certainly, the coverage/sensitivity of the method of choice for the “event discovery” stage is going to influence the minimum size of CNV detectable. However, a more detailed coverage often comes with a greater false-positive rate. Technique choice may also have more general issues. In both of the papers, the primary detection method is based on hybridization of case and pooled control genomes prior to detection on a chip. Thus, a more continuously distributed output may result—and the extra round of hybridization might bias against certain sequences. More direct primary approaches such as Illumina arrays or a second-hand analysis of SNP genotyping arrays may provide a more discrete copy number output, but these, too, can suffer from interpretational issues.

The other major implication of these and other CNV studies is the observation that certain genes “ignore” traditional disease boundaries. For example, NRXN1 CNVs have now been identified in autism and schizophrenia, and CNTNAP2 translocations/CNVs have been described in autism, Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, and schizophrenia/epilepsy. This mirrors the observation of common haplotypes altering risk across the schizophrenia-bipolar divide in numerous association studies. It might be the case that these more promiscuous genes are likely to be involved in more fundamental CNS processes or developmental stages—with the precise phenotypic outcome being defined by other variants or environment. The presence of mental retardation comorbid with psychiatric diagnoses in a number of CNV studies suggests that this might be the case. I look forward to the Venn diagrams of the future which show us the shared neuropsychiatric and disease-specific genes/gene alleles. It will also be interesting to see if the large deletions/duplications involving numerous genes give rise to more severe, familial, and diagnostically more defined syndromes or, alternatively, a more diffuse phenotype. Certainly, it has not been easy to dissect out individual gene contributions to phenotype in VCFS or the minimal region in Down syndrome.


Friedman JI, Vrijenhoek T, Markx S, Janssen IM, van der Vliet WA, Faas BH, Knoers NV, Cahn W, Kahn RS, Edelmann L, Davis KL, Silverman JM, Brunner HG, van Kessel AG, Wijmenga C, Ophoff RA, Veltman JA. CNTNAP2 gene dosage variation is associated with schizophrenia and epilepsy. Mol Psychiatry. 2008 Mar 1;13(3):261-6. Abstract

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  Christopher RossRussell L. Margolis
Submitted 3 April 2008
Posted 3 April 2008

We agree with the comments of Weinberger, Lencz and Malhotra, and Pickard, and the question raised by Honer about the extent to which the association may be more to mental retardation than schizophrenia. These new studies of copy number variation represent important advances, but need to be interpreted carefully.

We are now getting two different kinds of data on schizophrenia, which can be seen as two opposite poles. The first is from association studies with common variants, in which large numbers of people are required to see significance, and the strengths of the associations are quite modest. These kinds of vulnerability factors would presumably contribute a very modest increase in risk, and many taken together would cause the disease. By contrast, the “private” mutations, as identified by the Sebat study, could potentially be completely causative, but because they are present in only single individuals or very small numbers of individuals, it is difficult to be certain of causality. Furthermore, since some of them in the early-onset schizophrenia patients were present in unaffected parents, one might have to assume the contribution of a common variant vulnerability (from the other parent) as well.

If a substantial number of the private structural mutations are causal, then one might expect to have seen multiple small Mendelian families segregating a structural variant. The situation would then be reminiscent of the autosomal dominant spinocerebellar ataxis, in which mutations (currently about 30 identified loci) in multiple different genes result in similar clinical syndromes. The existence of many small Mendelian families would be less likely if either 1) structural variants that cause schizophrenia nearly always abolish fertility, or 2) some of the SVs detected by Walsh et al. are risk factors, but are usually not sufficient to cause disease. The latter seems more likely.

We think these two poles highlight the continued importance of segregation studies, as have been used for the DISC1 translocation. In order to validate these very rare “private” copy number variations, we believe that it would be important to look for sequence variations in the same genes in large numbers of schizophrenia and control subjects, and ideally to do so in family studies.

One very exciting result of the new copy number studies is the implication of whole pathways rather than just single genes. This highlights the importance of a better understanding of pathogenesis. The study of candidate pathways should help facilitate better pathogenic understanding, which should result in better biomarkers and potentially improve classification and treatment. In genetic studies, development of pathway analysis will be fruitful. Convergent evidence can come from studies of pathogenesis in cell and animal models, but this will need to be interpreted with caution, as it is possible to make a plausible story for so many different pathways (Ross et al., 2006). The genetic evidence will remain critical.


Ross CA, Margolis RL, Reading SA, Pletnikov M, Coyle JT. Neurobiology of schizophrenia. Neuron. 2006 Oct 5;52(1):139-53. Abstract

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  Michael Owen, SRF AdvisorMichael O'Donovan (SRF Advisor)George Kirov
Submitted 15 April 2008
Posted 15 April 2008

The idea that a proportion of schizophrenia is associated with rare chromosomal abnormalities has been around for some time, but it has been difficult to be sure whether such events are pathogenic given that most are rare. Two instances where a pathogenic role seems likely are first, the balanced ch1:11 translocation that breaks DISC1, where pathogenesis seems likely due to co-segregation with disease in a large family, and second, deletion of chromosome 22q11, which is sufficiently common for rates of psychosis to be compared with that in the general population. This association came to light because of the recognizable physical phenotype associated with deletion of 22q11, and the field has been waiting for the availability of genome-wide detection methods that would allow the identification of other sub-microscopic chromosomal abnormalities that might be involved, but whose presence is not predicted by non-psychiatric syndromal features. This technology is now upon us in the form of various microarray-based methods, and we can expect a slew of studies addressing this hypothesis in the coming months.

Structural chromosomal abnormalities can take a variety of forms, in particular, deletions, duplication, inversions, and translocations. Generally speaking, these can disrupt gene function by, in the case of deletions, insertions and unbalanced translocations, altering the copy number of individual genes. These are sometimes called copy number variations (CNVs). Structural chromosomal abnormalities can also disrupt a gene sequence, and such disruptions include premature truncation, internal deletion, gene fusion, or disruption of regulatory or promoter elements.

It is, however, worth pointing out that structural chromosomal variation in the genome is common—it has been estimated that any two individuals on average differ in copy number by a total of around 6 Mb, and that the frequency of individual duplications or deletions can range from common through rare to unique, much in the same way as other DNA variation. Also similar to other DNA variation, many structural variants, indeed almost certainly most, may have no phenotypic effects (and this includes those that span genes), while others may be disastrous for fetal viability. Walsh and colleagues have focused upon rare structural variants, and by rare they mean events that might be specific to single cases or families. For this reason, they specifically targeted CNVs that had not previously been described in the published literature or in the Database of Genomic Variants. The reasonable assumption was made that this would enrich for CNVs that are highly penetrant for the disorder. Indeed, Walsh et al. favor the hypothesis that genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia is conferred not by relatively common disease alleles but by a large number of individually rare alleles of high penetrance, including structural variants. As we have argued elsewhere (Craddock et al., 2007), it seems entirely plausible that schizophrenia reflects a spectrum of alleles of varying effect sizes including common alleles of small effect and rare alleles of larger effect, but data from genetic epidemiology do not support the hypothesis that the majority of the disorder reflects rare alleles of large effect.

Walsh et al. found that individuals with schizophrenia were >threefold more likely than controls to harbor rare CNVs that impacted on genes, but in contrast, found no significant difference in the proportions of cases and controls carrying rare mutations that did not impact upon genes. They also found a similar excess of rare structural variants that deleted or duplicated one or more genes in an independent series of cases and controls, using a cohort with childhood onset schizophrenia (COS).

The results of the Walsh study are important, and clearly suggest a role for structural variation in the etiology of schizophrenia. There are, however, a number of caveats and issues to consider. First, it would be unwise on the basis of that study to speculate on the likely contribution of rare variants to schizophrenia as a whole. It is likely correct that, due to selection pressures, highly penetrant alleles for disorders (like schizophrenia) that impair reproductive fitness are more likely to be of low frequency than they are to be common, but this does not imply that the converse is true. That is, one cannot assume that the penetrance of low frequency alleles is more likely to be high than low. Thus, and as pointed out by Walsh et al., it is not possible to know which or how many of the unique events observed in their study are individually pathogenic. Whether individual loci contribute to pathogenesis (and their penetrances) is, as we have seen, hard to establish. Estimating penetrance by association will require accurate measurement of frequencies in case and control populations, which for rare alleles, will have to be very large. Alternatively, more biased estimates of penetrance can be estimated from the degree of co-segregation with disease in highly multiplex pedigrees, but these are themselves fairly rare in schizophrenia, and pedigrees segregating any given rare CNV obviously even more so.

As Weinberger notes, the case for high penetrance (at the level of being sufficient to cause the disorder) is also undermined by their data from COS, where the majority of variants were inherited from unaffected parents. This accords well with the observation that 22q11DS, whilst conferring a high risk of schizophrenia, is still only associated with psychosis in ~30 percent of cases. It also accords well with the relative rarity of pedigrees segregating schizophrenia in a clearly Mendelian fashion, though the association of CNVs with severe illness of early onset might be expected to reduce the probability of transmission.

Third, there are questions about the generality of the findings. Cases in the case control series were ascertained in a way that enriched for severity and chronicity. Perhaps more importantly, the CNVs were greatly overrepresented in people with low IQ. Thus, one-third of all the potentially pathogenic CNVs in the case control series were seen in the tenth of the sample with IQ less than 80. The association between structural variants and low IQ is well known, as is the association between low IQ and psychotic symptoms, and it seems plausible to assume that forms of schizophrenia accompanied by mental retardation (MR) are likely to be enriched for this type of pathogenesis. The question that arises is whether the CNVs in such cases act simply by influencing IQ, which in turn has a non-specific effect on increasing risk of schizophrenia, or whether there are specific CNVs for MR plus schizophrenia, and some which may indeed increase risk of schizophrenia independent of IQ. In the case of 22q11 deletion, risk of schizophrenia does not seem to be dependent on risk of MR, but more work is needed to establish that this applies more generally.

Another reason to caution about the generality of the effect is that Walsh et al. found that cases with onset of psychotic symptoms at age 18 or younger were particularly enriched for CNVs, being greater than fourfold more likely than controls to harbor such variants. There did remain an excess of CNVs in cases with adult onset, supporting a more general contribution, although it should be noted that even in this group with severe disorder, this excess was not statistically significant (Fisher’s exact test, p = 0.17, 2-tailed, our calculation). The issue of age of onset clearly impacts upon assessing the overall contribution CNVs may make upon psychosis, since onset before 18, while not rare, is also not typical. A particular contribution of CNVs to early onset also appears supported by the second series studied, which had COS. However, this is a particularly unusual form of schizophrenia which is already known to have high rates of chromosomal abnormalities. Future studies of more typical samples will doubtless bear upon these issues.

Even allowing for the fact that many more CNVs may be detected as resolution of the methodology improves, the above considerations suggest it is premature to conclude a substantial proportion of cases of schizophrenia can be attributed to rare, highly penetrant CNVs. Nevertheless, even if it turns out that only a small fraction of the disorder is attributable to CNVs, as seen for other rare contributors to the disorder (e.g., DISC1 translocation), such uncommon events offer enormous opportunities for advancing our knowledge of schizophrenia pathogenesis.


Craddock N, O'Donovan MC, Owen MJ. Phenotypic and genetic complexity of psychosis. Invited commentary on ... Schizophrenia: a common disease caused by multiple rare alleles.Br J Psychiatry. 2007 90:200-3. Abstract

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Related News: Copy Number Variations in Schizophrenia: Rare But Powerful?

Comment by:  Ridha JooberPatricia Boksa
Submitted 2 May 2008
Posted 4 May 2008

Walsh et al. claim that rare and severe chromosomal structural variants (SVs) (i.e., not described in the literature or in the specialized databases as of November 2007) are highly penetrant events each explaining a few, if not singular, cases of schizophrenia.

However, their definition of rareness is questionable. Indeed, it is unclear why SVs that are rare (<1 percent) but previously described should be omitted from their analysis. In addition, contrary to their own definition of rareness, the authors included in the COS sample several SVs that have been previously mentioned in the literature (e.g. “115 kb deletion on chromosome 2p16.3 disrupting NRXN1”). Furthermore, some of these SVs (entire Y chromosome duplication) are certainly not rare (by the authors’ definition), nor highly penetrant with regard to psychosis (Price et al., 1967). Finally, as their definition of rareness depends on a specific date, the results of this study will change over time.

As to the assessment of severity, it can equally be concluded from table 2 and using their statistical approach that "patients with schizophrenia are significantly more likely to harbor rare structural variants (6/150) that do not disrupt any gene compared to controls(2/268) (p = 0.03)", thus contradicting their claim. In fact, had they used criteria in the literature (Lee et al., 2007; (Brewer et al., 1999) (i.e., deletion SVs are more likely than duplications to be pathogenic) and appropriate statistical contrasts, deletions are significantly (p = 0.02) less frequent in patients (5/23) than in controls (9/13) who have SVs. In addition, the assumption of high penetrance is questionable given the high level (13 percent) of non-transmitted SVs in parents of COS patients. Is the rate of psychosis proportionately high in the parents? From the data presented, we know that only 2/27 SVs in COS patients are de novo and that “some” SVs are transmitted. Adding this undetermined number of transmitted SVs to the reported non-transmitted SVs will lead to an even larger proportion of parents carrying SVs. Disclosing the inheritance status of SVs in COS patients along with information on diagnoses in parents from this “rigorously characterised cohort,” represents a major criterion for assessing the risk associated with these SVs.

Consequently, it appears that the argument of rareness is rather idiosyncratic and contains inconsistencies, and the one of severity is very open to interpretation. Most importantly, it should be emphasized that amalgamated gene effects at the population level do not allow one to conclude that any single SV actually contributes to schizophrenia in an individual. Thus it is unclear how this study of grouped events differs from the thousands of controversial and underpowered association studies of single genes.


Price WH, Whatmore PB. Behaviour Disorders and Pattern of Crime among XYY males Identified at a Maximum Security Hospital. Brit Med J 1967;1:533-6.

Lee C, Iafrate AJ, Brothman AR. Copy number variations and clinical cytogenetic diagnosis of constitutional disorders. Nat Genet 2007 July;39(7 Suppl):S48-S54.

Brewer C, Holloway S, Zawalnyski P, Schinzel A, FitzPatrick D. A chromosomal duplication map of malformations: regions of suspected haplo- and triplolethality--and tolerance of segmental aneuploidy--in humans. Am J Hum Genet 1999 June;64(6):1702-8.

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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.

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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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