[Skip to Content]

Upstate receives $780,000 grant to study genetic risks for brain disorders

An Upstate Medical University professor has been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study population differences in genetic risks for brain disorders.

Chunyu Liu, PhD, who runs the Laboratory of Behavioral and Psychiatric Genetics at Upstate, received  $786,432 for a study titled Gene Expression Regulation in Brains of East Asian, African, and European Descent Explains Schizophrenia GWAS in Diverse Populations.

Liu, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences as well as neuroscience and physiology at Upstate, says there is a limited amount of brain tissue available for research and most of it is from Caucasians. This study will include East Asian, African, and European brain tissue samples.

“In recent years, the research community realized that we were not doing a good job covering human populations and diversity,” Liu said. “Many populations have been underrepresented. The most important aspect of this project is the value of diversity.”

This study aims to learn the causes of population differences in genetic risks of schizophrenia through studying genetic regulators of brain gene expression in donors of East Asian, African, and European ancestry and create a novel algorithm to impute genetically regulated brain gene expression based on genotype data of diverse genetic backgrounds.

It will improve understanding of the biological mechanism of schizophrenia and discover novel risk genes either specific to populations or shared across populations, with significant implications for addressing human diversity, and health disparities and for developing precision medicine.

For the grant work, Liu’s lab is collaborating with Chao Chen, PhD, at Central South University in China and Eric Gamazon, PhD, at Vanderbilt University. The three labs collaborate with regular conference calls and email communications. There will be new sequencing data on brain samples generated in China on East Asian brains. They will work together to develop new methods, analyze the data and compare it among populations.

“We will study how gene expression is regulated similarly or differently in different populations,” he said.

While the grant specifically mentions schizophrenia, Liu said the information could be used for any brain-related psychiatric or neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Liu said his lab is already ahead of schedule, so it will go far beyond what was originally proposed for the five-year grant.

Liu’s lab studies how genetics contribute to psychiatric disorders, understanding how gene expression is regulated in the brain and how that mediates the process of genetic variations and disease pathology. The lab is devoted to collaborative research and education to advance and translate scientific discovery in psychiatric and behavioral genetics and systems biology to enhance human life.

“When you study disease on many different populations and understand how those genetic differences affect diverse populations, you understand the disease better, and you can treat the disease better,” Liu said, “and use a more refined, precise approach to help a specific individual.”

Caption:  Chunyu Liu research team includes, from left, Gayathri Ganesh, Rujia Dai, Chunling Zhang, Liu, Richard Kopp and Yu Wei.