Structural brain abnormalities are already present during the early phases of psychosis, but factors underlying brain volume changes are still not well understood. The neuregulin 1 gene (NRG1), influencing neurodevelopment and neuroplasticity, has been associated with schizophrenia. Our aim was to examine whether variations in the NRG1 gene (SNP8NRG221132, SNP8NRG6221533 and SNP8NRG243177 polymorphisms) influence longitudinal changes in the brain during a first episode of psychosis (FEP).
A 3-year follow-up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study was performed. Fifty-nine minimally medicated patients who were experiencing FEP and 14 healthy control individuals underwent genotyping and structural brain MRI at baseline and at 1- and 3-year follow-up. A comparison of brain volumes, gray matter, white matter (WM), lateral ventricles (LV), cortical cerebrospinal fluid, and thalamus and caudate was made between the groups according to their genotype.
In patients, the SNP8NRG6221533 risk C allele was significantly associated with increased LV volume across time. C allele carriers had significantly less WM compared with subjects homozygous for the T allele after the follow-up. No other significant differences were observed among subgroups. No significant changes according to the genotypes were found in healthy individuals.
Our findings suggest that variations of neurodevelopment-related genes, such as the NRG1 gene, can contribute to brain abnormalities described in early phases of schizophrenia and progressive changes during the initial years of the illness. To our knowledge, it is the first time that a relation between NRG1 polymorphisms and longitudinal brain changes is reported.