Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Genomics and BioMed Central.

Open Access Methodology article

Next-generation DNA sequencing-based assay for measuring allelic expression imbalance (AEI) of candidate neuropsychiatric disorder genes in human brain

Xiang Xu13, Hao Wang13, Min Zhu13, Yue Sun13, Yu Tao13, Qin He13, Jian Wang13, Li Chen13 and David Saffen123*

Author Affiliations

1 Institutes of Brain Science, Fudan University, 138 Yixueyuan Road, Shanghai 200032, China

2 Key Laboratory for Medical Neurobiology, Fudan University, 138 Yixueyuan Road, Shanghai 200032, China

3 School of Biological Sciences, Fudan University, 220 Handan Road, Shanghai 200433, China

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Genomics 2011, 12:518  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-518

Published: 20 October 2011



Common genetic variants that regulate gene expression are widely suspected to contribute to the etiology and phenotypic variability of complex diseases. Although high-throughput, microarray-based assays have been developed to measure differences in mRNA expression among independent samples, these assays often lack the sensitivity to detect rare mRNAs and the reproducibility to quantify small changes in mRNA expression. By contrast, PCR-based allelic expression imbalance (AEI) assays, which use a "marker" single nucleotide polymorphism (mSNP) in the mRNA to distinguish expression from pairs of genetic alleles in individual samples, have high sensitivity and accuracy, allowing differences in mRNA expression greater than 1.2-fold to be quantified with high reproducibility. In this paper, we describe the use of an efficient PCR/next-generation DNA sequencing-based assay to analyze allele-specific differences in mRNA expression for candidate neuropsychiatric disorder genes in human brain.


Using our assay, we successfully analyzed AEI for 70 candidate neuropsychiatric disorder genes in 52 independent human brain samples. Among these genes, 62/70 (89%) showed AEI ratios greater than 1 ± 0.2 in at least one sample and 8/70 (11%) showed no AEI. Arranging log2AEI ratios in increasing order from negative-to-positive values revealed highly reproducible distributions of log2AEI ratios that are distinct for each gene/marker SNP combination. Mathematical modeling suggests that these log2AEI distributions can provide important clues concerning the number, location and contributions of cis-acting regulatory variants to mRNA expression.


We have developed a highly sensitive and reproducible method for quantifying AEI of mRNA expressed in human brain. Importantly, this assay allowed quantification of differential mRNA expression for many candidate disease genes entirely missed in previously published microarray-based studies of mRNA expression in human brain. Given the ability of next-generation sequencing technology to generate large numbers of independent sequencing reads, our method should be suitable for analyzing from 100- to 200-candidate genes in 100 samples in a single experiment. We believe that this is the appropriate scale for investigating variation in mRNA expression for defined sets candidate disorder genes, allowing, for example, comprehensive coverage of genes that function within biological pathways implicated in specific disorders. The combination of AEI measurements and mathematical modeling described in this study can assist in identifying SNPs that correlate with mRNA expression. Alleles of these SNPs (individually or as sets) that accurately predict high- or low-mRNA expression should be useful as markers in genetic association studies aimed at linking candidate genes to specific neuropsychiatric disorders.