Blood extracellular vesicle RNAs are potential biomarkers for gene expression changes in the brain

The absence of non-invasive tests that can monitor the status of the brain is a major obstacle for psychiatric care. In order to address this need, Johns Hopkins University researchers assessed the feasibility of using tissue-specific gene expression to determine the origin of extracellular vesicle (EV) mRNAs in peripheral blood. Using the placenta as a model, the researchers discovered that 26 messenger RNAs that are specifically expressed in the placenta are present in EVs circulating in maternal blood. Twenty-three of these transcripts were either exclusively or highly expressed in maternal blood during pregnancy only and not in the postpartum period, verifying the feasibility of using tissue-specific gene expression to infer the tissue of origin for EV mRNAs. Using the same bioinformatic approach, which provides better specificity than isolating L1 cell-adhesion molecule containing EVs, the researchers discovered that 181 mRNAs that are specifically expressed in the female brain are also present in EVs circulating in maternal blood. Gene set enrichment analysis revealed that these transcripts, which are involved in synaptic functions and myelination, are enriched for genes implicated in mood disorders, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders. The EV mRNA levels of 13 of these female brain-specific transcripts are associated with postpartum depression (adjusted p-vals = 3 × 10−5 to 0.08), raising the possibility that they can be used to infer the state of the brain. In order to determine the extent to which EV mRNAs reflect transcription in the brain, the researchers compared mRNAs isolated from cells and EVs in an iPSC-derived brain microphysiological system differentiated for 3 and 9 weeks. They discovered that, although cellular and extracellular mRNA levels are not identical, they do correlate, and it is possible to extrapolate cellular RNA expression changes in the brain via EV mRNA levels. These findings bring EV mRNAs to the forefront of peripheral biomarker development efforts in psychiatric diseases by demonstrating the feasibility of inferring transcriptional changes in the brain via blood EV mRNA levels.

Summary of experiments

Fig. 1

A flow chart summary of the experiments performed to investigate the biomarker potential of brain specific EV mRNAs in blood.

Smirnova L, Modafferi S, Schlett C, Osborne LM, Payne JL, Sabunciyan S. (2024)  Blood extracellular vesicles carrying brain-specific mRNAs are potential biomarkers for detecting gene expression changes in the female brain. Mol Psychiatry [Epub ahead of print]. [abstract]

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