NeuRA Magazine #26

Research

BREAKTHROUGH IN CLEFT LIP AND PALATE RESEARCH

An international research collaboration between Australia and the USA, led by Associate Professor Roscioli at NeuRA has identified new genes that cause cleft lip and palate. The genes, associated for the first time with cleft lip and palate, encode proteins that work together in a network, providing important insights into the biological basis of one of the most common physical malformations.

Representing about 70 per cent of cleft lip and palate cases worldwide, non-syndromic cleft lip and palate typically occurs in isolation without other physical abnormalities. This craniofacial malformation has long been considered to be caused by a combination of many common genetic variants and environmental factors, each contributing a small amount to the risk of a child being born with a cleft.

Using next generation sequencing, the research team identified variants in four new genes, each representing a primary cause of non-syndromic cleft lip and palate. Variants in these genes were found to account for 15 per cent of the families who took part in the study and in nearly three per cent of a second, larger group of smaller families and isolated cases.

Published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the study provides the first evidence that a significant number of non-syndromic clefts have a single gene basis and not a complex basis as previously thought.

Associate Prof Tony Roscioli said cleft lip/palate is one of the most common human malformations, occurring in one in 800 children.

“That equates to about 250 Australian children each year and one affected child born every three minutes worldwide,” said Associate Prof Roscioli.

“Knowing the genes and the way these impact lip and palate formation opens the door for further research to understand how these genes work and to develop treatments.”

Cleft lip and cleft palates are repaired with corrective surgery. Future research will investigate the biology and link the findings to potential therapies. These discoveries will allow geneticists to provide more accurate information to families.

Associate Professor Tony Roscioli is a specialist in clinical genetics at the Sydney Children’s Hospital and leads the Sydney Partnership for Health Education Research and Enterprise (SPHERE) GenomeConnect clinical academic stream. At NeuRA he leads the Centre for Research Excellence in Neurocognitive Disorders where he endeavours to transform the diagnosis and management of intellectual disability through genomics.

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Exploring the electrophysiology and heritability of wellbeing and resilience

The majority of adults without a mental illness still experience poor mental health, indicating a need for a better understanding of what separates mental wellness from mental illness. One way of exploring what separates those with good mental health from those with poor mental health is to use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore differences in brain activity within the healthy population. Previous research has shown that EEG measures differ between clinical groups and healthy participants, suggesting that these measures are useful indicators of mental functioning. Miranda Chilver’s current project aims to examine how different EEG measures relate to each other and to test if they can be used to predict mental wellbeing. Furthermore, she hopes to distinguish between EEG markers of symptoms including depression and anxiety, and markers of positive symptoms of wellbeing to better understand how wellbeing can exist independently of mental illness. This will be done by obtaining measures of wellbeing and depression and anxiety symptoms using the COMPAS-W and DASS-42 questionnaires, respectively. Because EEG measures and mental wellbeing are both impacted by genetics as well as the environment, Miranda will also be testing whether the links found between EEG activity and Wellbeing are driven primarily by heritable or by environmental factors. This information will inform the development of future interventions that will aim to improve wellbeing in the general population. To achieve these goals, the project will assess the relationship between EEG activity and wellbeing, and between EEG and depression and anxiety symptoms to first test whether there is an association between EEG and mental health. Second, the heritability of the EEG, wellbeing, depression, and anxiety will be assessed to determine the extent to which these variables are explained through heritable or environmental factors. Finally, a model assessing the overlap between the heritable versus environmental contributions to each measure will be developed to assess whether genetics or environment drive the relationship between EEG and mental health. This project is based on a sample of over 400 healthy adult twins from the Australian TWIN-E study of resilience led by Dr Justine Gatt. This research will pave the way for improved mental health interventions based on individual needs.
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