A Systems Biology Approach for Hypothesizing the Effect of Genetic Variants on Neuroimaging Features in Alzheimer's Disease
Background: Neuroimaging markers provide quantitative insight into brain structure and function in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, where we lack mechanistic insights to explain pathophysiology. These mechanisms are often mediated by genes and genetic variations and are often studied through the lens of genome-wide association studies. Linking these two disparate layers (i.e., imaging and genetic variation) through causal relationships between biological entities involved in the disease's etiology would pave the way to large-scale mechanistic reasoning and interpretation. Objective: We explore how genetic variants may lead to functional alterations of intermediate molecular traits, which can further impact neuroimaging hallmarks over a series of biological processes across multiple scales. Methods: We present an approach in which knowledge pertaining to single nucleotide polymorphisms and imaging readouts is extracted from the literature, encoded in Biological Expression Language, and used in a novel workflow to assist in the functional interpretation of SNPs in a clinical context. Results: We demonstrate our approach in a case scenario which proposes KANSL1 as a candidate gene that accounts for the clinically reported correlation between the incidence of the genetic variants and hippocampal atrophy. We find that the workflow prioritizes multiple mechanisms reported in the literature through which KANSL1 may have an impact on hippocampal atrophy such as through the dysregulation of cell proliferation, synaptic plasticity, and metabolic processes. Conclusion: We have presented an approach that enables pinpointing relevant genetic variants as well as investigating their functional role in biological processes spanning across several, diverse biological scales.