The human cerebral cortex has undergone an extraordinary increase in size and complexity during mammalian evolution. Cortical cell lineages are specified in the embryo, and genetic and epidemiological evidence implicates early cortical development in the etiology of neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disabilities, and schizophrenia. Most of the disease-implicated genomic variants are located outside of genes, and the interpretation of noncoding mutations is lagging behind owing to limited annotation of functional elements in the noncoding genome. We set out to discover gene-regulatory elements and chart their dynamic activity during prenatal human cortical development, focusing on enhancers, which carry most of the weight upon regulation of gene expression. We longitudinally modeled human brain development using human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC)–derived cortical organoids and compared organoids to isogenic fetal brain tissue. Fetal fibroblast–derived hiPSC lines were used to generate cortically patterned organoids and to compare oganoids' epigenome and transcriptome to that of isogenic fetal brains and external datasets. Organoids model cortical development between 5 and 16 postconception weeks, thus enabling us to study transitions from cortical stem cells to progenitors to early neurons. The greatest changes occur at the transition from stem cells to progenitors. The regulatory landscape encompasses a total set of 96,375 enhancers linked to target genes, with 49,640 enhancers being active in organoids but not in mid-fetal brain, suggesting major roles in cortical neuron specification. Enhancers that gained activity in the human lineage are active in the earliest stages of organoid development, when they target genes that regulate the growth of radial glial cells. Parallel weighted gene coexpression network analysis (WGCNA) of transcriptome and enhancer activities defined a number of modules of coexpressed genes and coactive enhancers, following just six and four global temporal patterns that we refer to as supermodules, likely reflecting fundamental programs in embryonic and fetal brain. Correlations between gene expression and enhancer activity allowed stratifying enhancers into two categories: activating regulators (A-regs) and repressive regulators (R-regs).
The brain is responsible for cognition, behavior, and much of what makes us uniquely human. The development of the brain is a highly complex process, and this process is reliant on precise regulation of molecular and cellular events grounded in the spatiotemporal regulation of the transcriptome. Disruption of this regulation can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders. The regulatory, epigenomic, and transcriptomic features of the human brain have not been comprehensively compiled across time, regions, or cell types. Understanding the etiology of neuropsychiatric disorders requires knowledge not just of endpoint differences between healthy and diseased brains but also of the developmental and cellular contexts in which these differences arise. Moreover, an emerging body of research indicates that many aspects of the development and physiology of the human brain are not well recapitulated in model organisms, and therefore it is necessary that neuropsychiatric disorders be understood in the broader context of the developing and adult human brain. Here we describe the generation and analysis of a variety of genomic data modalities at the tissue and single-cell levels, including transcriptome, DNA methylation, and histone modifications across multiple brain regions ranging in age from embryonic development through adulthood. We observed a widespread transcriptomic transition beginning during late fetal development and consisting of sharply decreased regional differences. This reduction coincided with increases in the transcriptional signatures of mature neurons and the expression of genes associated with dendrite development, synapse development, and neuronal activity, all of which were temporally synchronous across neocortical areas, as well as myelination and oligodendrocytes, which were asynchronous. Moreover, genes including MEF2C, SATB2, and TCF4, with genetic associations to multiple brain-related traits and disorders, converged in a small number of modules exhibiting spatial or spatiotemporal specificity. We generated and applied our dataset to document transcriptomic and epigenetic changes across human development and then related those changes to major neuropsychiatric disorders. These data allowed us to identify genes, cell types, gene coexpression modules, and spatiotemporal loci where disease risk might converge, demonstrating the utility of the dataset and providing new insights into human development and disease.
Genetic variants may lead to disease, denoted here by a dimmed letter representing a nucleotide. The PsychENCODE Consortium presents research to link the effects of genetic variation to gene expression in the brain. The brain, our most complex organ, is at the root of both the cognitive and behavioral repertoires that make us unique as a species and underlies susceptibility to neuropsychiatric disorders. Healthy brain development and neurological function rely on precise spatiotemporal regulation of the transcriptome, which varies substantially by brain region and cell type. Recent advances in the genetics of neuropsychiatric disorders reveal a highly polygenic risk architecture involving contributions of multiple common variants with small effects and rare variants with a range of effects.
Our understanding of the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia (SCZ), and bipolar disorder (BD), lags behind other fields of medicine. The diagnosis and study of these disorders currently depend on behavioral, symptomatic characterization. Defining genetic contributions to disease risk allows for biological, mechanistic understanding but is challenged by genetic complexity, polygenicity, and the lack of a cohesive neurobiological model to interpret findings. The transcriptome represents a quantitative phenotype that provides biological context for understanding the molecular pathways disrupted in major psychiatric disorders. RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) in a large cohort of cases and controls can advance our knowledge of the biology disrupted in each disorder and provide a foundational resource for integration with genomic and genetic data.
More than 2000 human brains stored in tissue banks are giving up their genetic secrets. Genome scans have already revealed hundreds of locations where DNA tends to differ between people with and without a particular psychiatric disease. But those studies don't pin down specific culprit genes or what they do in the brain. "There was kind of a missing link," says Daniel Geschwind, a neurogeneticist at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles. He and others in the 3-year-old PsychENCODE Consortium, fueled by roughly $50 million from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, have tried to bridge that gap by tracking which genes are expressed, and where.