Discovery of more risky genes reveals more about the paths to Alzheimer’s

June, 2011

New genetic studies implicate myelin development, the immune system, inflammation, and lipid metabolism as critical pathways in the development of Alzheimer’s.

I commonly refer to ApoE4 as the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’, because it is the main genetic risk factor, tripling the risk for getting Alzheimer's. But it is not the only risky gene.

A mammoth genetic study has identified four new genes linked to late-onset Alzheimer's disease. The new genes are involved in inflammatory processes, lipid metabolism, and the movement of molecules within cells, pointing to three new pathways that are critically related to the disease.

Genetic analysis of more than 11,000 people with Alzheimer's and a nearly equal number of healthy older adults, plus additional data from another 32,000, has identified MS4A, CD2AP, CD33, and EPHA1 genes linked to Alzheimer’s risk, and confirmed two other genes, BIN1 and ABCA7.

A second meta-analysis of genetic data has also found another location within the MS4A gene cluster which is associated with Alzheimer's disease. Several of the 16 genes within the cluster are implicated in the activities of the immune system and are probably involved in allergies and autoimmune disease. The finding adds to evidence for a role of the immune system in the development of Alzheimer's.

Another study adds to our understanding of how one of the earlier-known gene factors works. A variant of the clusterin gene is known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s by 16%. But unlike the ApoE4 gene, we didn’t know how, because we didn’t know what the CLU gene did. A new study has now found that the most common form of the gene, the C-allele, impairs the development of myelin.

The study involved 398 healthy adults in their twenties. Those carrying the CLU-C gene had poorer white-matter integrity in multiple brain regions. The finding is consistent with increasing evidence that degeneration of myelin in white-matter tracts is a key component of Alzheimer’s and another possible pathway to the disease. But this gene is damaging your brain (in ways only detectible on a brain scan) a good 50 years before any clinical symptoms are evident.

Moreover, this allele is present in 88% of Caucasians. So you could say it’s not so much that this gene variant is increasing your risk, as that having the other allele (T) is protective.

Reference: 

[2257] Naj, A. C., Jun G., Beecham G. W., Wang L-S., Vardarajan B. N., Buros J., et al.
(2011).  Common variants at MS4A4/MS4A6E, CD2AP, CD33 and EPHA1 are associated with late-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Nat Genet. 43(5), 436 - 441.

Antunez, C. et al. 2011. The membrane-spanning 4-domains, subfamily A (MS4A) gene cluster contains a common variant associated with Alzheimer's disease. Genome Medicine,  3:33 doi:10.1186/gm249
Full text available at http://genomemedicine.com/content/3/5/33/abstract

[2254] Braskie, M. N., Jahanshad N., Stein J. L., Barysheva M., McMahon K. L., de Zubicaray G. I., et al.
(2011).  Common Alzheimer's Disease Risk Variant Within the CLU Gene Affects White Matter Microstructure in Young Adults.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 31(18), 6764 - 6770.