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Gene expression in the prefrontal cortex during adolescence: implications for the onset of schizophrenia

Laura W Harris1, Helen E Lockstone1, Phillipp Khaitovich2, Cynthia Shannon Weickert3, Maree J Webster4 and Sabine Bahn1*

  • * Corresponding author: Sabine Bahn

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Biotechnology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

2 Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

3 Schizophrenia Research Institute, Prince of Wales Medical Institute, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

4 Stanley Laboratory of Brain Research, Bethesda, USA

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BMC Medical Genomics 2009, 2:28  doi:10.1186/1755-8794-2-28

Published: 20 May 2009



Many critical maturational processes take place in the human brain during postnatal development. In particular, the prefrontal cortex does not reach maturation until late adolescence and this stage is associated with substantial white matter volume increases. Patients with schizophrenia and other major psychiatric disorders tend to first present with overt symptoms during late adolescence/early adulthood and it has been proposed that this developmental stage represents a "window of vulnerability".


In this study we used whole genome microarrays to measure gene expression in post mortem prefrontal cortex tissue from human individuals ranging in age from 0 to 49 years. To identify genes specifically altered in the late adolescent period, we applied a template matching procedure. Genes were identified which showed a significant correlation to a template showing a peak of expression between ages 15 and 25.


Approximately 2000 genes displayed an expression pattern that was significantly correlated (positively or negatively) with the template. In the majority of cases, these genes in fact reached a plateau during adolescence with only subtle changes thereafter. These include a number of genes previously associated with schizophrenia including the susceptibility gene neuregulin 1 (NRG1). Functional profiling revealed peak expression in late adolescence for genes associated with energy metabolism and protein and lipid synthesis, together with decreases for genes involved in glutamate and neuropeptide signalling and neuronal development/plasticity. Strikingly, eight myelin-related genes previously found decreased in schizophrenia brain tissue showed a peak in their expression levels in late adolescence, while the single myelin gene reported increased in patients with schizophrenia was decreased in late adolescence.


The observed changes imply that molecular mechanisms critical for adolescent brain development are disturbed in schizophrenia patients.