Transcriptome analysis of normal-appearing white matter reveals cortisol- and disease-associated gene expression profiles in multiple sclerosis

Jeroen Melief, Marie Orre, Koen Bossers, Corbert G van Eden, Karianne G Schuurman, Matthew R J Mason, Joost Verhaagen, Jörg Hamann, Inge Huitinga

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Inter-individual differences in cortisol production by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are thought to contribute to clinical and pathological heterogeneity of multiple sclerosis (MS). At the same time, accumulating evidence indicates that MS pathogenesis may originate in the normal-appearing white matter (NAWM). Therefore, we performed a genome-wide transcriptional analysis, by Agilent microarray, of post-mortem NAWM of 9 control subjects and 18 MS patients to investigate to what extent gene expression reflects disease heterogeneity and HPA-axis activity. Activity of the HPA axis was determined by cortisol levels in cerebrospinal fluid and by numbers of corticotropin-releasing neurons in the hypothalamus, while duration of MS and time to EDSS6 served as indicator of disease severity. Applying weighted gene co-expression network analysis led to the identification of a range of gene modules with highly similar co-expression patterns that strongly correlated with various indicators of HPA-axis activity and/or severity of MS. Interestingly, molecular profiles associated with relatively mild MS and high HPA-axis activity were characterized by increased expression of genes that actively regulate inflammation and by molecules involved in myelination, anti-oxidative mechanism, and neuroprotection. Additionally, group-wise comparisons of gene expression in white matter from control subjects and NAWM from (subpopulations of) MS patients uncovered disease-associated gene expression as well as strongly up- or downregulated genes in patients with relatively benign MS and/or high HPA-axis activity, with many differentially expressed genes being previously undescribed in the context of MS. Overall, the data suggest that HPA-axis activity strongly impacts on molecular mechanisms in NAWM of MS patients, but partly also independently of disease severity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number60
JournalActa neuropathologica communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 25 Apr 2019

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