Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Is human blood a good surrogate for brain tissue in transcriptional studies?

Chaochao Cai12, Peter Langfelder1, Tova F Fuller1, Michael C Oldham3, Rui Luo1, Leonard H van den Berg4, Roel A Ophoff45 and Steve Horvath12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Human Genetics, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

2 Department of Biostatistics, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

3 Department of Neurology, The Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA

4 Department of Neurology, Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience, University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht 3584 CX, the Netherlands

5 UCLA Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics, Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavioral, School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

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BMC Genomics 2010, 11:589  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-589

Published: 20 October 2010



Since human brain tissue is often unavailable for transcriptional profiling studies, blood expression data is frequently used as a substitute. The underlying hypothesis in such studies is that genes expressed in brain tissue leave a transcriptional footprint in blood. We tested this hypothesis by relating three human brain expression data sets (from cortex, cerebellum and caudate nucleus) to two large human blood expression data sets (comprised of 1463 individuals).


We found mean expression levels were weakly correlated between the brain and blood data (r range: [0.24,0.32]). Further, we tested whether co-expression relationships were preserved between the three brain regions and blood. Only a handful of brain co-expression modules showed strong evidence of preservation and these modules could be combined into a single large blood module. We also identified highly connected intramodular "hub" genes inside preserved modules. These preserved intramodular hub genes had the following properties: first, their expression levels tended to be significantly more heritable than those from non-preserved intramodular hub genes (p < 10-90); second, they had highly significant positive correlations with the following cluster of differentiation genes: CD58, CD47, CD48, CD53 and CD164; third, a significant number of them were known to be involved in infection mechanisms, post-transcriptional and post-translational modification and other basic processes.


Overall, we find transcriptome organization is poorly preserved between brain and blood. However, the subset of preserved co-expression relationships characterized here may aid future efforts to identify blood biomarkers for neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases when brain tissue samples are unavailable.