Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication, absence or delay in language development, and stereotyped or repetitive behaviors. Genetic studies show that neurexin-neuroligin (NRXN-NLGN) pathway genes contribute susceptibility to ASD, which include cell adhesion molecules NLGN3, NLGN4 and scaffolding proteins SHANK2 and SHANK3. Neuroligin proteins play an important role in synaptic function and trans-synaptic signaling by interacting with presynaptic neurexins. Shank proteins are scaffolding molecules of excitatory synapses, which function as central organizers of the postsynaptic density. Sequence level mutations and structural variations in these genes have been identified in ASD cases, while few studies were performed in Chinese population. In this study, we examined the copy numbers of four genes NLGN4, NLGN3, SHANK2, and SHANK3 in 285 ASD cases using multiplex fluorescence competitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR). We also screened the regulatory region including the promoter region and 5′/3′ untranslated regions (UTR) and the entire coding region of NLGN4 in a cohort of 285 ASD patients and 384 controls by direct sequencing of genomic DNA using the Sanger method. DNA copy number calculation in four genes showed no deletion or duplication in our cases. No missense mutations in NLGN4 were identified in our cohort. Association analysis of 6 common SNPs in NLGN4 did not find significant difference between ASD cases and controls. These findings showed that these genes may not be major disease genes in Chinese ASD cases.
Neuroligins are cell adhesion proteins that interact with neurexins at the synapse. This interaction may contribute to differentiation, plasticity and specificity of synapses. In humans, single mutations in neuroligin encoding genes lead to autism spectrum disorder and/or mental retardation. Caenorhabditis elegans mutants deficient in nlg-1, an orthologue of human neuroligin genes, have defects in different behaviors. Here we show that the expression of human NLGN1 or rat Nlgn1 cDNAs in C. elegans nlg-1 mutants rescues the fructose osmotic strength avoidance and gentle touch response phenotypes. Two specific point mutations in NLGN3 and NLGN4 genes, involved in autistic spectrum disorder, were further characterized in this experimental system. The R451C allele described in NLGN3, was analyzed with both human NLGN1 (R453C) and worm NLG-1 (R437C) proteins, and both were not functional in rescuing the osmotic avoidance behavior and the gentle touch response phenotype. The D396X allele described in NLGN4, which produces a truncated protein, was studied with human NLGN1 (D432X) and they did not rescue any of the behavioral phenotypes analyzed. In addition, RNAi feeding experiments measuring gentle touch response in wild type strain and worms expressing SID-1 in neurons (which increases the response to dsRNA), both fed with bacteria expressing dsRNA for nlg-1, provided evidence for a postsynaptic in vivo function of neuroligins both in muscle cells and neurons, equivalent to that proposed in mammals. This finding was further confirmed generating transgenic nlg-1 deficient mutants expressing NLG-1 under pan-neuronal (nrx-1) or pan-muscular (myo-3) specific promoters. All these results suggest that the nematode could be used as an in vivo model for studying particular synaptic mechanisms with proteins orthologues of humans involved in pervasive developmental disorders.
The autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders that result in severe and pervasive impairment in the development of reciprocal social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication skills. In addition, individuals with ASD have stereotypical behavior, interests and activities. Rare mutations of some genes, such as neuroligin (NLGN) 3/4, neurexin (NRXN) 1, SHANK3, MeCP2 and NHE9, have been reported to be associated with ASD. In the present study, we investigated whether alterations in mRNA expression levels of these genes could be found in lymphoblastoid cell lines derived from patients with ASD.
We measured mRNA expression levels of NLGN3/4, NRXN1, SHANK3, MeCP2, NHE9 and AKT1 in lymphoblastoid cells from 35 patients with ASD and 35 healthy controls, as well as from 45 patients with schizophrenia and 45 healthy controls, using real-time quantitative reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction assays.
The mRNA expression levels of NLGN3 and SHANK3 normalized by β-actin or TBP were significantly decreased in the individuals with ASD compared to controls, whereas no difference was found in the mRNA expression level of MeCP2, NHE9 or AKT1. However, normalized NLGN3 and SHANK3 gene expression levels were not altered in patients with schizophrenia, and expression levels of NLGN4 and NRXN1 mRNA were not quantitatively measurable in lymphoblastoid cells.
Our results provide evidence that the NLGN3 and SHANK3 genes may be differentially expressed in lymphoblastoid cell lines from individuals with ASD compared to those from controls. These findings suggest the possibility that decreased mRNA expression levels of these genes might be involved in the pathophysiology of ASD in a substantial population of ASD patients.
Synaptic genes, NLGN3 and NLGN4X, two homologous members of the neuroligin family, have been supposed as predisposition loci for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), and defects of these two genes have been identified in a small fraction of individuals with ASDs. But no such rare variant in these two genes has as yet been adequately replicated in Chinese population and no common variant has been further investigated to be associated with ASDs.
7 known ASDs-related rare variants in NLGN3 and NLGN4X genes were screened for replication of the initial findings and 12 intronic tagging single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were genotyped for case-control association analysis in a total of 229 ASDs cases and 184 control individuals in a Chinese Han cohort, using matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight (MALDI-TOF) mass spectrometry.
We found that a common intronic variant, SNP rs4844285 in NLGN3 gene, and a specific 3-marker haplotype XA-XG-XT (rs11795613-rs4844285-rs4844286) containing this individual SNP were associated with ASDs and showed a male bias, even after correction for multiple testing (SNP allele: P = 0.048, haplotype:P = 0.032). Simultaneously, none of these 7 known rare mutation of NLGN3 and NLGN4X genes was identified, neither in our patients with ASDs nor controls, giving further evidence that these known rare variants might be not enriched in Chinese Han cohort.
The present study provides initial evidence that a common variant in NLGN3 gene may play a role in the etiology of ASDs among affected males in Chinese Han population, and further supports the hypothesis that defect of synapse might involvement in the pathophysiology of ASDs.
Autism encompasses a wide spectrum of disorders arising during brain development. Recent studies reported that sequence polymorphisms in neuroligin-3 (NLGN3) and neuroligin-4 (NLGN4) genes have been linked to autism spectrum disorders indicating neuroligin genes as candidate targets in brain disorders. We have characterized a single mutation found in two affected brothers that substituted Arg451 to Cys in NL3. Our data show that the exposed Cys causes retention of the protein in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) when expressed in HEK-293 cells. To examine whether the introduction of a Cys in the C-terminal region of other α/β-hydrolase fold proteins could promote the same cellular phenotype, we made homologous mutations in acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) and found a similar processing deficiency and intracellular retention (De Jaco et al., J Biol Chem. 2006, 281:9667-76). NL3, AChE and BChE mutant proteins are recognized as misfolded in the ER, and degraded via the proteasome pathway. A 2D electrophoresis coupled with mass spectrometry based approach was used to analyze proteins co-immunoprecipitating with NL3 and show differential expression of factors interacting with wild type and mutant NL3. We identified several proteins belonging to distinct ER resident chaperones families, including calnexin, responsible for playing a role in the folding steps of the AChE and NLs.
α/β-Hydrolase fold proteins; Protein folding; ER chaperone proteins
Neuroligins (NLs) are postsynaptic cell-adhesion molecules essential for normal synapse function. Mutations in neuroligin-4 (NL4; gene symbol: NLGN4) have been reported in some patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental impairments. However, the low frequency of NL4 mutations, and the limited information about the affected patients and the functional consequences of their mutations, cast doubt on the causal role of NL4 mutations in these disorders. Here, we describe two brothers with classical ASD who carry a single amino acid substitution in NL4 (R87W). This substitution was absent from the brothers’ asymptomatic parents, suggesting that it arose in the maternal germline. R87 is conserved in all NL isoforms, and the R87W substitution is not observed in control individuals. At the protein level, the R87W-substitution impaired glycosylation processing of NL4 expressed in HEK293 and COS cells, destabilized NL4, caused NL4 retention in the endoplasmic reticulum in non-neuronal cells and neurons, and blocked NL4 transport to the cell-surface. As a result, the R87W-substitution inactivated the synapse-formation activity of NL4, and abolished the functional effect of NL4 on synapse strength. Viewed together, these observations suggest that a point mutation in NL4 can cause ASD by a loss-of-function mechanism.
Neuroligin; autism spectrum disorder; protein misfolding; synaptic transmission; synapse; behavior
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) comprise an heterogeneous group of neuro-developmental abnormalities, mainly of genetic origin, characterized by impaired social interactions, communications deficits, and stereotyped behaviors. In a small percentage of cases, ASDs have been found to be associated with single mutations in genes involved in synaptic function. One of these involves the postsynaptic cell adhesion molecule neuroligin (NL) 3. NLs interact with presynaptic neurexins (Nrxs) to ensure a correct cross talk between post and presynaptic specializations. Here, transgenic mice carrying the human R451C mutation of Nlgn3, were used to study GABAergic signaling in the hippocampus early in postnatal life. Whole cell recordings from CA3 pyramidal neurons in slices from NL3R451C knock-in mice revealed an enhanced frequency of Giant Depolarizing Potentials (GDPs), as compared to controls. This effect was probably dependent on an increased GABAergic drive to principal cells as demonstrated by the enhanced frequency of miniature GABAA-mediated (GPSCs), but not AMPA-mediated postsynaptic currents (EPSCs). Changes in frequency of mGPSCs were associated with an acceleration of their decay kinetics, in the absence of any change in unitary synaptic conductance or in the number of GABAA receptor channels, as assessed by peak scaled non-stationary fluctuation analysis. The enhanced GABAergic but not glutamatergic transmission early in postnatal life may change the excitatory/inhibitory balance known to play a key role in the construction and refinement of neuronal circuits during postnatal development. This may lead to behavioral deficits reminiscent of those observed in ASDs patients.
neuroligin 3 mutation; developing hippocampus; GDPs; miniature GABAergic events; autism
Many studies have supported a genetic aetiology for autism. Here we report mutations in two X-linked genes, neuroligins NLGN3 and NLGN4, in siblings with autism spectrum disorders. These mutations affect cell adhesion molecules localised at the synapse and suggest that a defect of synaptogenesis may predispose to autism.
Amino Acid Sequence; Autistic Disorder; genetics; metabolism; Base Sequence; Brain; metabolism; Carrier Proteins; genetics; Chromosomes, Human, X; genetics; DNA, Complementary; genetics; Female; Gene Expression Profiling; Humans; Linkage (Genetics); Male; Membrane Proteins; genetics; Molecular Sequence Data; Mutation; Nerve Tissue Proteins; genetics; Pedigree; RNA, Messenger; genetics; metabolism; Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
α- and β-neurexins (NRXNs) are transmembrane cell adhesion proteins that localize to pre-synaptic membranes in neurons and interact with the post-synaptic neuroligins (NLGNs). Their gene mutations are associated with the autistic spectrum disorders. The extracellular region of α-NRXNs, containing nine independently folded domains, has structural complexity and unique functional characteristics, distinguishing it from the smaller β-NRXNs. We have solved the X-ray crystal structure of seven contiguous domains of the α-NRXN-1 extracellular region at 3.0 Å resolution. The structure reveals an arrangement where the N-terminal five domains adopt a more rigid linear conformation and the two C-terminal domains form a separate arm connected by a flexible hinge. In an extended conformation the molecule is suitably configured to accommodate a bound NLGN molecule, as supported by structural comparison and surface plasmon resonance. These studies provide the structural basis for a multi-functional synaptic adhesion complex mediated by α-NRXN-1.
Disturbances of the excitation/inhibition (E/I) balance in the brain were recently suggested as potential factors underlying disorders like autism and schizophrenia resulting in associated behavioral alterations including changes in social and emotional behavior as well as abnormal aggression. Neuronal cell adhesion molecules (nCAMs) and mutations in these genes were found to be strongly implicated in the pathophysiology of these disorders. Neuroligin2 (nlgn2) is a postsynaptic cell adhesion molecule, which is predominantly expressed at inhibitory synapses and required for synapse specification and stabilization. Changes in the expression of nlgn2 were shown to result in alterations of social behavior as well as altered inhibitory synaptic transmission, hence modifying the E/I balance. In our study, we focused on the role of nlgn2 in the dorsal hippocampus in the regulation of emotional and social behaviors. To this purpose, we injected an AAV construct overexpressing nlgn2 in the hippocampus of rats and investigated the effects on behavior and on markers for the E/I ratio. We could show an increase in GAD65, a GABA-synthesizing protein in neuronal terminals, and furthermore, reduced exploration of novel stimuli and less offensive behavior. Our data suggest nlgn2 in the hippocampus to be strongly implicated in maintaining the E/I balance in the brain and thereby modulating social and emotional behavior.
Schizophrenia is a severe chronic mental disorder with a high genetic component in its etiology. Several lines of study have suggested that synaptic dysfunction may underlie the pathogenesis of schizophrenia. Neuroligin proteins function as cell-adhesion molecules at post-synaptic membrane and play critical roles in synaptogenesis and synaptic maturation. In this study, we systemically sequenced all the exons and promoter region of neuroligin-2 (NLGN2) gene in a sample of 584 schizophrenia patients and 549 control subjects from Taiwan. In total, we identified 19 genetic variants, including six rare missense mutations such as R215H (one patient), V510M (two patients), R621H (one patient), A637T (two patients), P800L (one patient and one control) and A819S (one patient and one control). In silico analysis predicted that two patient-specific missense mutations, R215H and R621H, had damaging effect, whereas the other missense mutations were benign. Importantly, functional analysis with immunocytochemistry and electrophysiological recordings identified the R215H mutant as a loss-of-function mutant in inducing GABAergic synaptogenesis. Mechanistically, the synaptogenic deficiency of R215H mutant was due to its retention inside the endoplasmic reticulum and inability to be transported to cell membrane. Our study suggests that defects in GABAergic synapse formation in the brain may be an important contributing factor for the onset of schizophrenia. In the family study of this mutation, we found his elder brother also carried this mutation but did not have psychiatric symptoms, indicating that this mutation has incomplete penetrance, and thus the clinical relevance of this mutation should be interpreted with caution.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterized by impairments in social behaviors that are sometimes coupled to specialized cognitive abilities. A small percentage of ASD patients carry mutations in genes encoding neuroligins, which are postsynaptic cell adhesion molecules. Here we introduce one of these mutations into mice – the R451C-substitution in neuroligin-3. R451C-mutant mice showed impaired social interactions but enhanced spatial learning abilities. Unexpectedly, these behavioral changes were accompanied by an increase in inhibitory synaptic transmission, with no apparent effect on excitatory synapses. Deletion of neuroligin-3, in contrast, did not cause such changes, indicating that the R451C-substitution represents a gain-of-function mutation. These data suggest that increased inhibitory synaptic transmission may contribute to human ASDs and that the R451C KI mice may be a useful model for studying autism-related behaviors.
To screen cDNA for NLGN3 and NLGN4 from lymphoblastoid cells from autistic subjects.
Methods and results
10 young autistic females and 30 non‐autistic subjects were studied for alterations in two X linked genes, NLGN3 and NLGN4. A novel NLGN4 isoform lacking exon 4, which occurred de novo on the paternal allele, was identified in one of the autistic females. Monoallelic expression of NLGN4 was seen in this subject and in 11 of 14 informative autistic and non‐autistic females using a single nucleotide polymorphism found at 3′ UTR. Additionally, the NLGN3 transcript was present in two isoforms (with and without exon 7) in nine of 10 autistic females and in 30 non‐autistic subjects, including parents of the autistic female having only the complete transcript with exon 7, and from the whole brain of a control. The novel truncated NLGN3 product may have a regulatory role, as reported in other proteins (for example, vasopressin receptor) by attenuating the function of the full length isoform, resulting in a reduction of the mature protein. Three dimensional protein structures were characterised using comparative modelling, and significant changes were suggested in the protein cores for these two neuroligin isoforms.
Splice variants may lead to potentially abnormal neuroligins in the causation of autism spectrum disorders.
NLGN3; NLGN4; autism; splicing; three dimensional structure
Tourette syndrome (TS) is a highly heritable neuropsychiatric disorder characterised by motor and vocal tics. Despite decades of research, the aetiology of TS has remained elusive. Recent successes in gene discovery backed by rapidly advancing genomic technologies have given us new insights into the genetic basis of the disorder, but the growing collection of rare and disparate findings have added confusion and complexity to the attempts to translate these findings into neurobiological mechanisms resulting in symptom genesis. In this review, we explore a previously unrecognised genetic link between TS and a competing series of trans-synaptic complexes (neurexins (NRXNs), neuroligins (NLGNs), leucine-rich repeat transmembrane proteins (LRRTMs), leucine rich repeat neuronals (LRRNs) and cerebellin precursor 2 (CBLN2)) that links it with autism spectrum disorder through neurodevelopmental pathways. The emergent neuropathogenetic model integrates all five genes so far found to be uniquely disrupted in TS into a single pathogenetic chain of events described in context with clinical and research implications.
autism spectrum disorder; genetics; neurexin; neurodevelopment; Tourette syndrome; trans-synaptic complexes
Intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) such as Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and epilepsies are heterogeneous disorders that have diverse etiologies and pathophysiologies. The high rate of co-occurrence of these disorders, however, suggest potentially shared underlying mechanisms. A number of well-known genetic disorders share epilepsy, intellectual disability and autism as prominent phenotypic features, including tuberous sclerosis, Rett syndrome, and fragile X. In addition, mutations of several genes involved in neurodevelopment, including ARX, DCX, neuroligins and neuropilin2 have been identified in children with epilepsy, IDD, ASD or a combination of thereof. Finally, in animal models, early life seizures can result in cellular and molecular changes that could contribute to learning and behavioral disabilities. Increased understanding of the common genetic, molecular and cellular mechanisms of IDD, ASD and epilepsy may provide insight into their underlying pathophysiology and elucidate new therapeutic approaches for these conditions.
Epilepsy; Intellectual Disability; Autism; Synaptic plasticity; hippocampus
One unifying explanation for the complexity of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may lie in the disruption of excitatory/inhibitory (E/I) circuit balance during critical periods of development. We examined whether Parvalbumin (PV)-positive inhibitory neurons, which normally drive experience-dependent circuit refinement , are disrupted across heterogeneous ASD mouse models.
We performed a meta-analysis of PV expression in previously published ASD mouse models and analyzed two additional models, reflecting an embryonic chemical insult (prenatal valproate, VPA) or single-gene mutation identified in human patients (Neuroligin-3, NL-3 R451C).
PV-cells were reduced in the neocortex across multiple ASD mouse models. In striking contrast to controls, both VPA and NL-3 mouse models exhibited an asymmetric PV-cell reduction across hemispheres in parietal and occipital cortices (but not the underlying area CA1).
ASD mouse models may share a PV-circuit disruption, providing new insight into circuit development, potential prevention and treatment of autism.
parvalbumin; VPA; neuroligin; GABA
Mutations in several postsynaptic proteins have recently been implicated in the molecular pathogenesis of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), including Neuroligins, Neurexins, and members of the ProSAP/Shank family, thereby suggesting that these genetic forms of autism may share common synaptic mechanisms. Initial studies of ASD-associated mutations in ProSAP2/Shank3 support a role for this protein in glutamate receptor function and spine morphology, but these synaptic phenotypes are not universally penetrant, indicating that other core facets of ProSAP2/Shank3 function must underlie synaptic deficits in patients with ASDs. In the present study, we have examined whether the ability of ProSAP2/Shank3 to interact with the cytoplasmic tail of Neuroligins functions to coordinate pre/postsynaptic signaling through the Neurexin–Neuroligin signaling complex in hippocampal neurons of Rattus norvegicus. Indeed, we find that synaptic levels of ProSAP2/Shank3 regulate AMPA and NMDA receptor-mediated synaptic transmission and induce widespread changes in the levels of presynaptic and postsynaptic proteins via Neurexin–Neuroligin transsynaptic signaling. ASD-associated mutations in ProSAP2/Shank3 disrupt not only postsynaptic AMPA and NMDA receptor signaling but also interfere with the ability of ProSAP2/Shank3 to signal across the synapse to alter presynaptic structure and function. These data indicate that ASD-associated mutations in a subset of synaptic proteins may target core cellular pathways that coordinate the functional matching and maturation of excitatory synapses in the CNS.
One unifying explanation for the complexity of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may lie in the disruption of excitatory/inhibitory (E/I) circuit balance during critical periods of development. We examined whether Parvalbumin (PV)-positive inhibitory neurons, which normally drive experience-dependent circuit refinement (Hensch Nat Rev Neurosci 6:877–888, 1), are disrupted across heterogeneous ASD mouse models. We performed a meta-analysis of PV expression in previously published ASD mouse models and analyzed two additional models, reflecting an embryonic chemical insult (prenatal valproate, VPA) or single-gene mutation identified in human patients (Neuroligin-3, NL-3 R451C). PV-cells were reduced in the neocortex across multiple ASD mouse models. In striking contrast to controls, both VPA and NL-3 mouse models exhibited an asymmetric PV-cell reduction across hemispheres in parietal and occipital cortices (but not the underlying area CA1). ASD mouse models may share a PV-circuit disruption, providing new insight into circuit development and potential prevention by treatment of autism.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s11689-009-9023-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Parvalbumin; VPA; Neuroligin; GABA
The establishment and maturation of appropriate synaptic connections is crucial in the developmental of neuronal circuits. Cellular adhesion is believed to play a central role in this process. Neuroligins are neuronal cell adhesion molecules that are hypothesized to act in the initial formation and maturation of synaptic connections. In order to establish the zebrafish as a model to investigate the in vivo role of Neuroligin proteins in nervous system development, we identified the zebrafish orthologs of neuroligin family members and characterized their expression. Zebrafish possess seven neuroligin genes. Synteny analysis and sequence comparisons show that NLGN2, NLGN3, and NLGN4X are duplicated in zebrafish, but NLGN1 has a single zebrafish ortholog. All seven zebrafish neuroligins are expressed in complex patterns in the developing nervous system and in the adult brain. The spatial and temporal expression patterns of these genes suggest that they occupy a role in nervous system development and maintenance.
nlgn; NL; Nlg; cell adhesion; synapse; central nervous system
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder with an unknown molecular pathogenesis. A recent molecular focus has been the mutated neuroligin 3, neuroligin 3(R451C), in gain-of-function studies and for its role in induced impairment of synaptic function, but endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress induced by mutated molecules also deserves investigation. We previously found two missense mutations, H246N and Y251S, in the gene-encoding synaptic cell adhesion molecule-1 (CADM1) in ASD patients, including cleavage of the mutated CADM1 and its intracellular accumulation. In this study, we found that the mutated CADM1 showed slightly reduced homophilic interactions in vitro but that most of its interactions persist. The mutated CADM1 also showed morphological abnormalities, including shorter dendrites, and impaired synaptogenesis in neurons. Wild-type CADM1 was partly localized to the ER of C2C5 cells, whereas mutated CADM1 mainly accumulated in the ER despite different sensitivities toward 4-phenyl butyric acid with chemical chaperone activity and rapamycin with promotion activity for degradation of the aggregated protein. Modeling analysis suggested a direct relationship between the mutations and the conformation alteration. Both mutated CADM1 and neuroligin 3(R451C) induced upregulation of C/EBP-homologous protein (CHOP), an ER stress marker, suggesting that in addition to the trafficking impairment, this CHOP upregulation may also be involved in ASD pathogenesis.
autism; Cadm1; ER stress
Neurexin and neuroligin, which undergo heterophilic interactions with each other at the synapse, are mutated in some patients with autism spectrum disorder, a set of disorders characterized by deficits in social and emotional learning. We have explored the role of neurexin and neuroligin at sensory-to-motor neuron synapses of the gill-withdrawal reflex in Aplysia that undergoes sensitization, a simple form of learned fear. We find that depleting neurexin in the presynaptic sensory neuron or neuroligin in the postsynaptic motor neuron abolishes both long-term facilitation and the associated presynaptic growth induced by repeated pulses of serotonin. Moreover, introduction into the motor neuron of the R451C mutation of neuroligin-3 linked to autism spectrum disorder blocks both intermediate-term and long-term facilitation. Our results suggest that activity-dependent regulation of the neurexin-neuroligin interaction may govern trans-synaptic signaling required for the storage of long-term memory, including emotional memory that may be impaired in autism spectrum disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is highly heritable, but the genetic risk factors for it remain largely unknown. Although structural variants with large effect sizes may explain up to 15% ASD, genome-wide association studies have failed to uncover common single nucleotide variants with large effects on phenotype. The focus within ASD genetics is now shifting to the examination of rare sequence variants of modest effect, which is most often achieved via exome selection and sequencing. This strategy has indeed identified some rare candidate variants; however, the approach does not capture the full spectrum of genetic variation that might contribute to the phenotype.
We surveyed two loci with known rare variants that contribute to ASD, the X-linked neuroligin genes by performing massively parallel Illumina sequencing of the coding and noncoding regions from these genes in males from families with multiplex autism. We annotated all variant sites and functionally tested a subset to identify other rare mutations contributing to ASD susceptibility.
We found seven rare variants at evolutionary conserved sites in our study population. Functional analyses of the three 3’ UTR variants did not show statistically significant effects on the expression of NLGN3 and NLGN4X. In addition, we identified two NLGN3 intronic variants located within conserved transcription factor binding sites that could potentially affect gene regulation.
These data demonstrate the power of massively parallel, targeted sequencing studies of affected individuals for identifying rare, potentially disease-contributing variation. However, they also point out the challenges and limitations of current methods of direct functional testing of rare variants and the difficulties of identifying alleles with modest effects.
Autism spectrum disorder; Massively parallel DNA sequencing; Rare variation; Evolutionary conservation
Recent studies in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) support an important role for multiple rare variants in these conditions. This is a clinically important finding, as, with the demonstration that a significant proportion of ASDs are the result of rare, etiological genetic variants, it becomes possible to make use of genetic testing to supplement behavioral analyses for an earlier diagnosis. As it appears that earlier interventions in ASDs will produce better outcomes, the development of genetic testing to augment behaviorally based evaluations in ASDs holds promise for improved treatment. Furthermore, these rare variants involve synaptic and neuronal genes that implicate specific paihvi/ays, cells, and subcellular compartments in ASDs, which in turn will suggest novel therapeutic approaches in ASDs, Of particular recent interest are the synaptic cell adhesion and associated molecules, including neurexin 1, neuroligin 3 and 4, and SHANK3, which implicate glutamatergic synapse abnormalities in ASDs, In the current review we will overview the evidence for a genetic etiology for ASDs, and summarize recent genetic findings in these disorders.
pervasive developmental disorder; autism spectrum disorder; genetics; association; susceptibility locus
Neuroligins are postsynaptic cell adhesion proteins that associate with their presynaptic partners, the neurexins. Using small-angle X-ray scattering, we determined the shapes of the extracellular region of several neuroligin isoforms in solution. We conclude that the neuroligins dimerize via the characteristic four-helix bundle observed in other cholinesterases and that the connecting sequence between the globular lobes of the dimer and the cell membrane is elongated, projecting away from the dimer interface. X-ray scattering and neutron contrast variation data show that two neurexin monomers bind at symmetric locations on opposite sides of the long axis of the neuroligin dimer, separated by 107 Å. Using these data, we develop structural models that delineate the spatial arrangements of different neuroligin domains and their partnering molecules. As mutations of neurexin and neuroligin genes appear linked to autism, these models provide a structural framework for understanding altered recognition by these proteins in neuro-developmental disorders.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous disorder with substantial heritability, most of which is unexplained. ASD has a population prevalence of one percent and affects four times as many males as females. Patients with fragile X E (FRAXE) intellectual disability, which is caused by a silencing of the X-linked gene AFF2, display a number of ASD-like phenotypes. Duplications and deletions at the AFF2 locus have also been reported in cases with moderate intellectual disability and ASD. We hypothesized that other rare X-linked sequence variants at the AFF2 locus might contribute to ASD. We sequenced the AFF2 genomic region in 202 male ASD probands and found that 2.5% of males sequenced had missense mutations at highly conserved evolutionary sites. When compared with the frequency of missense mutations in 5545 X chromosomes from unaffected controls, we saw a statistically significant enrichment in patients with ASD (OR: 4.9; P < 0.014). In addition, we identified rare AFF2 3′ UTR variants at conserved sites which alter gene expression in a luciferase assay. These data suggest that rare variation in AFF2 may be a previously unrecognized ASD susceptibility locus and may help explain some of the male excess of ASD.