Vulnerable connections are disrupted across a wide range of brain disorders

Brain disorders share common disruptions of specific connections in the brain, according to an international group of neuroscientists led by researchers from the Complex Trait Genetics group of the Center for Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Amsterdam UMC (location VUmc).

08/09/2019 | 1:44 PM

The study localized the overlap in disruptions across 12 psychiatric and neurological brain disorders and is published this week in Nature Human Behaviour. The researchers argue for more cross-disorder research that compares different mental disorders to learn which features are disorder-specific and which are general disease symptoms.

“The network of interconnected brain regions, called the connectome, provides the biological infrastructure for healthy cognition,” says first author Siemon de Lange. “Connections that are most important for communication between brain regions are specifically disrupted in brain disorders. These connections, acting as highways in the brain, are involved in brain functions such as movement, attention and cognitive control.” Connections in the brain are altered in a wide range of brain disorders, but previous studies focused on only one or two disorders at a time and lacked power to identify disruptions in connectivity that are common across multiple disorders.

Twelve brain disorders
The study is a large collaborative effort that utilizes data from earlier studies and open datasets. By collating data from different sources, researchers were able to gather a dataset with MRI scans of over 2,000 people including ones diagnosed with one of 12 brain disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. “By examining the overlap in the connections that were altered in each disorder, we could identify connections vulnerable to brain disorders in general,” explains De Lange the methodology. “This overlap in disruptions suggest that some specific connections are especially vulnerable and that brain disorders partly share underlying biological mechanisms.”

Shared biological mechanisms
Around 18 percent of the Dutch aged between 18 and 65 experiences mental health problems and one-third experiences a major impact of it in their daily life. According to neuroscientist Martijn van den Heuvel, principal investigator of the study, it is therefore important to gain further understanding of the disorder-shared and disorder-specific biology of brain disorders: “Cross-disorder examinations will teach us more about how clinically different mental conditions relate to each other at the biological level and have the potential to show distinct patterns between disorders that might foster the development of disease specific MRI-based biomarkers for faster diagnosis.”

de Lange, S. C., Scholtens, L. H., …, van den Heuvel, M. P. (2019). Shared vulnerability for connectome alterations across psychiatric and neurological brain disorders. Nature Human Behaviour.