Many neurodegenerative diseases develop only later in life, when cells in the nervous system lose their structure or function. In many forms of neurodegenerative diseases, this late-onset phenomenon remains largely unexplained.
Analyzing single-cell RNA sequencing from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Huntington’s disease (HD) patients, we find increased transcriptional heterogeneity in disease-state neurons. We hypothesize that transcriptional heterogeneity precedes neurodegenerative disease pathologies. To test this idea experimentally, we use juvenile forms (72Q; 180Q) of HD iPSCs, differentiate them into committed neuronal progenitors, and obtain single-cell expression profiles. We show a global increase in gene expression variability in HD. Autophagy genes become more stable, while energy and actin-related genes become more variable in the mutant cells. Knocking down several differentially variable genes results in increased aggregate formation, a pathology associated with HD. We further validate the increased transcriptional heterogeneity in CHD8+/− cells, a model for autism spectrum disorder.
Overall, our results suggest that although neurodegenerative diseases develop over time, transcriptional regulation imbalance is present already at very early developmental stages. Therefore, an intervention aimed at this early phenotype may be of high diagnostic value.