Elevated methylation levels, reduced expression levels, and frequent contractions in a clinical cohort of C9orf72 expansion carriers

Jazmyne L. Jackson, Ni Cole A. Finch, Matthew C. Baker, Jennifer M. Kachergus, Mariely Dejesus-Hernandez, Kimberly Pereira, Elizabeth Christopher, Mercedes Prudencio, Michael G. Heckman, E. Aubrey Thompson, Dennis W. Dickson, Jaimin Shah, Björn Oskarsson, Leonard Petrucelli, Rosa Rademakers, Marka Van Blitterswijk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background: A repeat expansion in the C9orf72-SMCR8 complex subunit (C9orf72) is the most common genetic cause of two debilitating neurodegenerative diseases: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Currently, much remains unknown about which variables may modify these diseases. We sought to investigate associations between C9orf72 promoter methylation, RNA expression levels, and repeat length, their potential effects on disease features, as well as changes over time and within families. Methods: All samples were obtained through the ALS Center at Mayo Clinic Florida. Our primary cohort included 75 unrelated patients with an expanded C9orf72 repeat, 33 patients who did not possess this expansion, and 20 control subjects without neurodegenerative diseases. Additionally, 67 members from 17 independent C9orf72 families were selected of whom 33 harbored this expansion. Longitudinally collected samples were available for 35 C9orf72 expansion carriers. To increase our understanding of C9orf72-related diseases, we performed quantitative methylation-sensitive restriction enzyme-based assays, digital molecular barcoding, quantitative real-time PCR, and Southern blotting. Results: In our primary cohort, higher methylation levels were observed in patients with a C9orf72 repeat expansion than in patients without this expansion (p = 1.7e-13) or in control subjects (p = 3.3e-07). Moreover, we discovered that an increase in methylation levels was associated with a decrease in total C9orf72 transcript levels (p = 5.5e-05). These findings aligned with our observation that C9orf72 expansion carriers had lower expression levels of total C9orf72 transcripts than patients lacking this expansion (p = 3.7e-07) or control subjects (p = 9.1e-05). We also detected an elevation of transcripts containing intron 1a (upstream of the repeat) in patients carrying a C9orf72 repeat expansion compared to (disease) controls (p ≤ 0.01), an indication of abortive transcripts and/or a switch in transcription start site usage. While methylation and expression levels were relatively stable over time, fluctuations were seen in repeat length. Interestingly, contractions occurred frequently in parent-offspring transmissions (> 50%), especially in paternal transmissions. Furthermore, smaller repeat lengths were detected in currently unaffected individuals than in affected individuals (p = 8.9e-04) and they were associated with an earlier age at collection (p = 0.008). Conclusions: In blood from C9orf72 expansion carriers, we found elevated methylation levels, reduced expression levels, and unstable expansions that tend to contract in successive generations, arguing against anticipation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalMolecular neurodegeneration
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 30 2020


  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Anticipation
  • C9orf72
  • Expansion size
  • Hypermethylation
  • Motor neuron disease
  • Paternal contraction
  • Repeat expansion disorder

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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