Pathways to neurodegeneration: Mechanistic insights from GWAS in Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and related disorders
The discovery of causative genetic mutations in affected family members has historically dominated our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease (AD), Parkinson's disease (PD), frontotemporal dementia (FTD), and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Nevertheless, most cases of neurodegenerative disease are not explained by Mendelian inheritance of known genetic variants, but instead are thought to have a complex etiology with numerous genetic and environmental factors contributing to susceptibility. Although unbiased genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified novel associations to neurodegenerative diseases, most of these hits explain only modest fractions of disease heritability. In addition, despite the substantial overlap of clinical and pathologic features among major neurodegenerative diseases, surprisingly few GWAS-implicated variants appear to exhibit cross-disease association. These realities suggest limitations of the focus on individual genetic variants and create challenges for the development of diagnostic and therapeutic strategies, which traditionally target an isolated molecule or mechanistic step. Recently, GWAS of complex diseases and traits have focused less on individual susceptibility variants and instead have emphasized the biological pathways and networks revealed by genetic associations. This new paradigm draws on the hypothesis that fundamental disease processes may be influenced on a personalized basis by a combination of variants - some common and others rare, some protective and others deleterious - in key genes and pathways. Here, we review and synthesize the major pathways implicated in neurodegeneration, focusing on GWAS from the most prevalent neurodegenerative disorders, AD and PD. Using literature mining, we also discover a novel regulatory network that is enriched with AD- and PD-associated genes and centered on the SP1 and AP-1 (Jun/Fos) transcription factors. Overall, this pathway- and network-driven model highlights several potential shared mechanisms in AD and PD that will inform future studies of these and other neurodegenerative disorders. These insights also suggest that biomarker and treatment strategies may require simultaneous targeting of multiple components, including some specific to disease stage, in order to assess and modulate neurodegeneration. Pathways and networks will provide ideal vehicles for integrating relevant findings from GWAS and other modalities to enhance clinical translation.