Prefrontal cortex VAMP1 gene network moderates the effect of the early environment on cognitive flexibility in children
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During development, genetic and environmental factors interact to modify specific phenotypes. Both in humans and in animal models, early adversities influence cognitive flexibility, an important brain function related to behavioral adaptation to variations in the environment. Abnormalities in cognitive functions are related to changes in synaptic connectivity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and altered levels of synaptic proteins. We investigated if individual variations in the expression of a network of genes co-expressed with the synaptic protein VAMP1 in the prefrontal cortex moderate the effect of early environmental quality on the performance of children in cognitive flexibility tasks. Genes overexpressed in early childhood and co-expressed with the VAMP1 gene in the PFC were selected for study. SNPs from these genes (post-clumping) were compiled in an expression-based polygenic score (PFC-ePRS-VAMP1). We evaluated cognitive performance of the 4 years-old children in two cohorts using similar cognitive flexibility tasks. In the first cohort (MAVAN) we utilized two CANTAB tasks: (a) the Intra-/Extra-dimensional Set Shift (IED) task, and (b) the Spatial Working Memory (SWM) task. In the second cohort, GUSTO, we used the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) task. The results show that in 4 years-old children, the PFC-ePRS-VAMP1 network moderates responsiveness to the effects of early adversities on the performance in attentional flexibility tests. The same result was observed for a spatial working memory task. Compared to attentional flexibility, reversal learning showed opposite effects of the environment, as moderated by the ePRS. A parallel ICA analysis was performed to identify relationships between whole-brain voxel based gray matter density and SNPs that comprise the PFC-ePRS-VAMP1. The early environment predicts differences in gray matter content in regions such as prefrontal and temporal cortices, significantly associated with a genetic component related to Wnt signaling pathways. Our data suggest that a network of genes co-expressed with VAMP1 in the PFC moderates the influence of early environment on cognitive function in children.
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